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Decisions, decisions.

I’ve just returned from Malta where I came across a story that I had missed at the time.  A decade ago a Catholic woman from the Maltese island of Gozo gave birth to conjoined twins.  Doctors said the twins would both die unless they were operated on; but if this operation went ahead only one of the babies would survive.

The parents refused to allow this operation.  The doctors challenged their decision.  The tussle went all the way to the high court where the parents were overruled.  One of the children did indeed die.  The parents are apparently still living in Malta with the surviving and healthy child.  

Those who watched the movie Sophie’s Choice will have seen an equivalent fictional dilemma.  Sophie was sent to Auschwitz and a Nazi officer forced her to choose life for one child, and death for the other.  If she refused to pick, both would be sent to the gas chamber.  She chose her son – and the daughter was led, screaming, away.

From a utilitarian perspective Sophie was certainly right to choose.  Indeed, what’s striking is that for a utilitarian, the question of whether or not to choose barely registers as a dilemma.

In the famous trolley thought experiments, we are presented with the option of killing Person 6 to save Persons 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.  But they’re all different people.  If you don’t turn the runaway trolley, Person 6, at least, will benefit.  But neither child could gain from Sophie’s refusal to choose.  

And yet surely we don’t believe that the utilitarian solution is quite so incontrovertibly the correct one.  The Maltese parents were motivated in part by their religious beliefs.  However, even the secular among us wouldn’t approve of parents who found the decision easy; I don’t mean the decision as to which child to save – obviously agonizing.  I mean the decision as to whether to select at all.  

In the Maltese case, the High Court enforced what was, on reflection, the right course of action.   A child was saved.  And, significantly, the most recent press reports about the case quote the parents as now being glad they’d been overruled.  

Perhaps there’s a broader conclusion here.  We are tolerant of individuals having deontological instincts – we would be appalled if they didn’t.  And yet it is right that our public institutions – like the courts – are set up so as to operate within a more impersonal, not to say utilitarian, framework.

By: David Edmonds

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