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Survival Lottery

In his article “The Survival Lottery,” Harris suggests a situation
where a possible course of action would be to kill a healthy person and use his
organs for transplantation, thereby saving several lives at the cost of one.

However the argument Harris presents, which he claims to be rational, does
intuitively raise a certain moral repugnance. The issues addressed such as
whether letting die is equivalent to killing, or is killing the innocent ever
justified, are controversial in themselves and Harriss views have been
roundly criticised. This Essay will examine the main issues raised by the
survival lottery and attempt to prove Harriss claim that it would be a
rational thing to do is in fact wrong. I will not do this by appealing to some
objective moral standard, such as we have a duty to never kill the innocent, as
this will inevitably lead to deadlock and lower the debate to a matter of your
own personal opinion. Instead I will argue that a Reductio ad Absurdum can be
levelled against Harriss argument because of the untenable consequences it
would lead to. By revealing the weakness of the argument for the lottery we can
show why it shouldnt take place without being drawn into a conflict between
consequentialist and objectivist based ethical theories Harriss argument is
based on the “maximising lives” theory, as he believes there is value
in numbers and that two lives are twice as valuable as one. From this premise he
gives the example in the survival lottery of two patients Mr. Y and Mr. Z who
are certain to die unless they get organ transplants, but no spare organs are to
be found. They both suggest that a healthy person, (Mr. A) be seized, killed
painlessly and his organs be used for the transplantation. They argue that this
is the rational and morally correct thing to do, for to not do so would be
sacrificing two lives to save one. It is the right course of action since it
maximises the number of lives saved albeit at the cost of a healthy and innocent
person. To combat the fear, worry and possible abuse by doctors of who should be
seized and “disorganised” Mr. Y and Z suggest a lottery as a fair way
of determining who should be the donor. Mr Y and Z do have a strong case, they
can argue that they are just as innocent as Mr A, as its not their fault they
need organ transplants. For the doctors to refuse to treat them is in effect
discriminating against sick people. When we try to point out to them that
doctors have a duty not to kill anyone, Mr Y and Z could claim that this is
begging the question as the doctors through there inaction will be killing both
of them. Perhaps this is where we can attack Harris, he equates killing with
letting die for as a consequentialist it does not matter to him how the deaths
come about, merely the fact that they have occurred is whats important.

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However we could argue that by killing Mr. A we will have performed an ACTION,
it will have been a man made death. On the other hand if we “kill” Mr.

Y and Z we will have let nature take its course, no act has been done by an
agent and can we be held responsible for things we dont do ? We could use the
example of starving children in Africa, if we dont always send aid to them
are we responsible for killing them ? However this does not settle the question,
we have merely provided an alternative viewpoint and on what basis can we say
this is more morally correct than Harriss view ? Maclean tries to side step
this deadlock by arguing that the killing of Mr A is not moral question at all,
in fact its “morally impossible.” Harris assumes that the organs for
Mr. Y and Z are available albeit at the death of an innocent person. Maclean
states that although the organs are physically available, they are not morally
available and if this is the case there should be no question of killing Mr A.

By denying the availability of organs we can then say the doctors have no course
of action to take, Mr Y and Z cannot be saved and the question of whether
letting them die is tantamount to killing them does not even arise. However I
dont believe this has resolved the conflict as it has simply provided another
view of the value of human life. Maclean accuses Harris of operating a
“metaphysical notion of value whereon lives are rated as more or less
valuable on some supposedly objective scale of values independently of who
values them.” This has the effect of degrading human beings to nothing more
than expendable “units of organs” and no longer seen as individuals.

Harris of course would disagree saying his view, since it maximises the number
of human lives, it places more value on life. Both views can be rationally
justified and the deadlock remains, the question is on what basis can we rule
one view to be moral the other immoral? I dont believe we can, but what we
can do is try to show that the rationality behind the argument for one of the
views is fallacious and if this is the case we can then reject that view. The
next part of my Essay will reveal how Harriss case can be successfully
attacked and shown to have absurd consequences without having to appeal to some
metaphysical notion of the value of life, or an axiom such as the sanctity of
human life, thus breaking the deadlock doing so creates. To establish our
Reductio ad Absurdum lets examine the premises Mr. Y and Zs argument relies
on. Firstly they state that all three people in this situation, themselves and
Mr. A are all innocent. This is important as it removes any other consideration
on who should be killed other than the basis of numbers, so for the moment we
are accepting the maximising principle so that we can show the absurdity it
leads to. Mr Y and Z then in effect “point a finger” at Mr A and
accuse him of living at the cost of 2 lives. This is their reason for killing
him, the force from which they rationalise their course of action. But the
absurdity follows form this, Mr. Y and Z have no basis on which to “point
the finger” at Mr A and level a 2 lives against 1 argument against him. Mr.

A has every right to refute this by pointing the finger back at either Mr. Y or
Z and saying ” you have no right to single me out, for I accept that if you
kill me then 2 people will live, but if I where to kill either of you then 2
people will also live. Myself for I will not have to be killed, and whichever
one of you I dont kill, cause we could use the others organs to save him.

Since you claim we are all innocent, and your only argument against me is that
killing me will save 2 lives, I have shown that you cant use this argument
against anyone without them reversing it back upon you.” Thus Mr Y and
Zs argument is defeated their premise that killing 1 person to save 2 still
stands, but they cannot use it against a third party such as Mr A. Another form
of this argument can take is that if we accept Mr Y and Zs premise that the
more lives we save the better, then it would make sense for Mr A to kill a
person. For in doing so he would be saving 3 lives, his own and Mr Y and Zs.

But just say this person before being killed by Mr A, said “hold on a
minute, lets kill this guy here, this way we will save 4 peoples lives, mine,
yours Mr Y and Mr. Zs. This establishes a regress with each person whos
about to be killed using the same argument, and its difficult to see how to
escape from it. In conclusion from these attacks we can proclaim the argument
for the survival lottery as presented by Harris is fallacious and in theory
leads to absurdity. I have chosen not to mention the practical difficulties of
the survival lottery such as which groups if any should be excluded from the
draw, as I have not needed to.

Harris, John “The Survival lottery” from Applied Ethics ed. P
Singer (Oxford 1986) Maclean, Anne ” The elimination of Morality” (
London 1993 ) McKnight Chris J. “The Survival of the Survival Lottery”
in Journal of Applied Ethics Vol. 13 No.1 1996


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