Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Ethics of Randomization

I took my surveyors out to dinner last night and asked what we should do differently if we repeated our study. Their responses were all along the lines of: this was good, but next time, you should let us pick who gets the capital grant instead of letting the computer decide. Or, this was good, but next time you should give everyone GHC 200 instead of only half the people. So I had the ethics on randomization on the brain when I listened to a podcast by David Rodin from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Rodin brought up an interesting hypothetical: Say you’re stuck at the bottom of a well, and an innocent fat man gets pushed down the well. The fat man will surely crush you. But you have a ray gun! You can choose to either vaporize the fat man with the ray gun, thereby saving yourself from certain death, or let the fat man fall, thereby ending your own life. What do you do?

David Rodin says that the only ethical choice is to let the fat man fall. The fat man has no agency: he doesn’t want to kill you. He therefore did not forfeit his own right to not be killed. By killing him, you would be taking an innocent life. I’m not convinced.

There are two rights violations in this scenario. The first is the choice by whoever pushed the fat man to kill one of the two of you. The second is that the pusher is forcing you to choose which of two innocent people die, which surely violates your right not to be harassed.

In my mind, the two choices are equally bad. You either end the life of the fat man and live with the fact that you chose to take an innocent life, or let your own life end and make the fat man live with the fact that he squished a saint– someone so altruistic that he took his own like rather than kill one innocent falling fat man.

But what if there’s a third way? What if, as the fat man came careening down on you, you reached in your pocket, took out a coin, and flipped it? Heads, the fat man’s vapor. Tails, you’re jelly.

In my mind, this is the only ethical thing to do because it results in a net decrease in rights violations. The guy who pushed the fat man is still committing one violation of rights by forcing one of you to die, but you rob the pusher-man of the second rights violation of forcing you to choose between lives. Now, the fat man can’t squish a saint and you can’t take an innocent life: whoever lives just got lucky.

So when it comes to questionable acts of self defense involving falling fat men and ray guns, randomization is the only ethical choice. Do you think my surveyors would buy that explanation when it comes to randomizing capital grants?

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