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Survival Lottery

Updated March 26, 2019

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Survival Lottery essay

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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.

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. Bibliography 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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Survival Lottery. (2019, Mar 26). Retrieved from