Friday, December 21, 2007

Arguments for classroom discussion

In his very influential introductory text on ethics, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels discusses the tragic case of an anencephallic baby named Theresa (BT) whose parents wanted to donate her organs so that otherwise healthy children who need them could survive. One of the issues involving this case is that in order to utilize the organs the doctors would have to kill BT. The ethical question arises, is it morally permissible to kill BT in order to retrieve her organs so that others might live? The argument that he presents in favor of killing BT in order to retrieve her organs is what he labels the ‘benefits argument:’ (It should be noted that Rachels does not address whether or not he agrees with this argument, only that this argument can be made.)
1. If we can benefit someone without harming another then it is permissible to do so.
2. Retrieving the organs from BT will benefit others without harming BT
3. Therefore we should retrieve the organs from BT.
When I discuss this problem in my intro to ethics course most students find this to be a plausible argument. They believe that the premises are true and have a tendency to agree that the doctors should be allowed to kill BT.

Assuming that the benefits argument is a sound argument, I then present an argument that seems to follow from, and be consistent with, the benefits argument, but which most students reject as being implausible and would not sanction doing what this argument requires. The argument is:
1. If we can benefit someone without harming another then it is permissible to do so.
2. There is a shortage of organs needed to save lives.
3. We can reduce this shortage by developing a fetal farm of anencephallic babies from which we can harvest needed organs.
4. We will benefit others and will not harm anyone by developing these fetal farms and harvesting the needed organs.
5. Therefore we should develop fetal farms of anencephallic babies and harvest their organs as needed.

The reason I give these contrasting arguments is to get students to realize that even though we sometimes accept premises as being true we do not always accept the conclusions that seem to follow from them. Anyway, you might find it interesting to discuss this issue with your students. In my experience it has generated a great deal of discussion that has lead to some interesting distinctions; e.g., something simply happening and causing something to happen, and possible theoretical positions regarding the roles of reason and emotions in our ethical lives.

I hope all of you have a happy holiday season and a new year full of adventure and growth.

1 comment:

  1. I remember your ethics class, and there is nothing more stimulating than agreeing to a path of logic and thinking that you are certain of the conclusions that follow, then getting a shock when someone uses those agreed to premises in a similar argument to produce conclusion that you would not normally agree to. (Especially conclusions that we should raise brain dead babies in farms!)

    The post after your post deals with getting students engaged, your described method definitely engages students.

    If you get a chance, contact me:


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!