“Scheffler’s paradox” is a puzzling feature of the moral beliefs of most deontologists.
According to these beliefs, it is wrong for you to kill an innocent person even
if your killing the innocent person is the only way to prevent five killings of innocent persons from
being perpetrated by someone else. What could possibly explain this?
This feature of deontologists’ beliefs cannot be explained purely by their commitment to the moral importance of such distinctions as doing vs. allowing, intending vs.
foreseeing, or the like. Most deontologists think that there are stronger reasons
against doing harm to non-human
animals than against allowing harm to
animals; many also think that there are stronger reasons against acting with
the intention of harming an animal
than against causing such harm to an animal without intending it. But surely you
could permissibly kill one bear if
that is the only way for you to save five other bears from being killed by someone
else. In general, it seems that Scheffler’s paradox does not really arise for killing
So what is the special
feature of persons that lies behind Scheffler’s paradox?
When no persons are involved, if you take the “interventionist” option of killing one bear to save five, you both actively do
and intend harm to one bear; but you also both actively do and intend good to the five other bears. So it seems that in the case involving bears, the reason for the interventionist option and
the reason against it are in the end fairly evenly balanced.
different in the case involving persons? The pattern of doing vs. allowing and intending vs. foreseeing is just the same as in
the case involving bears. So I propose that the relevant difference is that when
persons are involved, the values of
the relevant consequences are
different, on the grounds that these consequences involve relationships between persons.
that there are certain intrinsic values and disvalues exemplified by
relationships between persons. For example, other things equal, when one person
saves another person’s life, he puts himself into a good relationship with that
person; when one person fails to save another person’s life, he puts himself
into a fairly bad relationship with that person; and when one person kills another,
he puts himself into an unspeakably terrible relationship with that person.
you take the interventionist option of killing one person in order to save five,
your relationship with the five is affected by the fact that you saved them by means
of sacrificing the one. In effect, you have put them into a relationship with
the one that is almost as horrible as the unspeakably terrible relationship into which
you have put yourself with the one. So overall the relationship with the five into
which you put yourself is not clearly a good relationship – you save them,
but only by making them the beneficiaries and cause of the involuntary
sacrifice of the one.
Thus, I propose, the way in which the interventionist option saves the five is sufficiently tarnished that it does not count as a clearly “good consequence” of the option at all. On the other hand, the bad consequences are intensified – they involve not just a person’s losing his life, but also your putting yourself and the five into various horrible relationships with him. So the reasons against the interventionist option are now significantly more powerful than the reasons in favour.
Of course, the “non-interventionist” option has some pretty bad consequences too. By not saving the five, you put yourself into a fairly bad relationship with them; while by not killing the one you put yourself in only a very modestly good relationship with him. Still, you did not actively bring about these bad consequences; you only allowed them to happen. For a deontologist, the fact that the act involves only foreseeing and allowing harm (not intending or actively doing harm) significantly weakens the reason against the act that arises from these bad consequences.
Overall, then, the
reasons against the non-interventionist option are markedly less strong than
the reasons against the interventionist option; the balance of
reasons tells decisively against the interventionist option. The special feature of persons that lie behind Scheffler's paradox is the special range of values and disvalues exemplified by relationships between persons.