Thought Experiment "J"

Recently I was sent the following thought experiment by Jobson, a frequent commenter here on HDC. Here is what he said:
If I may add another question / thought experiment here, one I have been contemplating on for many years. It was once postulated by some woman of the UN council ( I can't remember her name) and she was heavily criticized for it. But I agree she had a very important point. Imagine the following hypothetical (but very realistic!) case:

You represent a human aid organization in central Africa and help refugees and victims of a gruesome tribal war based on local religion. It is a country without natural resources, the UN won't intervene. You make no distinction and help the hungry and wounded of both factions/tribes. For your organization to work safely in that area, both war lords demand payment in terms of food and money. You give away a part of your resources (food, medical aid supplies) for your aid workers to be safe. Here's the dilemma:

- You help and treat both sides. Since there is no distinction between civilians and soldiers (there is no army, they do not wear uniforms and do not know the Geneva convention), once wounded combatants drop their AK47 and report at your hospital, you identify them as civilian and you treat them. But when they leave healed, they pick up an AK47 somewhere and start fighting again. The warlords have food, manpower and money, so the fighting continues. While 50,000 die each year, you save an estimated 200,000 lives each year. You feel you make a difference. The bad side is, this war has raged for 10 years already and will continue at least another 10 years, if not longer.

The alternative:

- You stop giving aid. About 250,000 people die each year of famine, sickness or fatal wounds. Because of the high casualty rate, one side claims victory in 2 years, but the county is a graveyard (think Rwanda). Still, peace settles in after the war has ended.

As a rational thinker, you can do the math (500,000 dead in both cases). On moral grounds, you meet difficulty. Still, you'll have to make a choice: Will you stand by and watch genocide happen or will you intervene, but let the war continue? What will you do? This is a very hard question, if not a bit of a sick one, I admit. But it has tested my thinking and ethics. Also, when people are acting/intervening based on religious grounds (especially if one side is christian!), what would happen?

Jobson and I want to know how you'd handle this situation before we give our answers. So what would you do? It's a tough one, isn't it?


  1. I never answer these things correctly. What would I do...hmmm. I smuggle into the area an accurate assault rifle which can be fitted with a silencer. Preferably an M4 with a collapsable stock. I zero the weapon out and ensure its accuracy. I carefully seek out civilians who wish to secure the area and bring peace. I enlist them to my aid and establish a network of informants and spies. I find out what habits each warlord has. Where do they sleep, where do they eat, where do they go to pick up prostitutes? I plan and wait. When a shipment comes in with supplies I attach myself to the party of people in charge of distributing the supplies to the warlords. I count my steps. I measure the side of the compound. I count the number of guards and where their posts are located. When we leave I seperate. At dusk I approach the compound. Night vision goggles are horrible at dusk and dawn so this is the best time to attack. I hit a weak point in the defense. A sewer drain, lone guard post, etc. I systematically make my way to the warlord's location. I drop him with a shot to the head. I leave a note written in the native language giving credit to the opposing faction. I stalk away. Repeat as neccesary.

  2. The thought experiment allows us to state numbers with certainty, rather than rely on probability or guesses. In the real-world situation, however, there are so many unknowns, estimates, guesses, changing factors, etc. that it's a big crap shoot. Anything can happen tomorrow: a new charismatic leader can unite factions, a deal can be struck, a new popular movement can emerge, an outside force can intervene by providing support, an economic ally of a faction can collapse, etc. Better to do the most good you can right here and right now.

  3. If both courses of action cause in the same results, then I'd pack up the plantation (the good-doer brigade) and go to some other place where my efforts would do a net good.

  4. I agree with Sophie. (I will say that the 250,000 figure seems awfully high, but I'm not sure that changes the dilemma.) Additionally, we don't know which side will win either way. If the warlords of one side are going to butcher multitudes if they win, and it's likely those of the other side will rule more benevolently, we might want to be pickier about who we help.

  5. I agree. You're wasting resources without making a tangible difference while you might be able to make a difference elsewhere. This would be a harder if you extended the thought experiment by saying there's peace, enough food, medicine etc. everywhere but in this one place.

    Of course in the real world you can't make a decision based on such numbers, so presumably the right thing to do is usually to stay and help.

  6. I would feel inclined to leave if I also had the ability to make some kind of public statement about my reasons. I don't want to send the message that I condone the war. But if it has become apparent that all my efforts are doing is patching up the people to allow them to run back into the bloody conflict, I can say, I'm done enabling this. Just walking out and saying nothing seems heartless, though.

  7. This is my favorite answer by far. The only thing I would do differently is the note I'd leave.

    My note would be something along the lines of "This is GOD. I do not approve of this war. I will systematically kill any leader who perpetuates it. Live in peace or I'll kill you."
    Or maybe I'd not say it was God. I'd just say, "This war is not cool. I will kill any leader who perpetuates it." And be done at that.

    Then as you say, Jay, repeat as necessary.

  8. Interesting answers, everyone! Thanks very much! Keep them coming. :)

  9. Indeed, some interesting answers thus far. Let's hope more will come :)

  10. Lets boil this one down a bit and see what the syrup looks like.

    The actual question, pared down to its roots, gives you two choices:

    a) 500,000 people die over a period of 10 years. During that time you save 2 million lives.

    b) 500,000 people die over a period of two years. During that time you save no one.

    Based on the math the question has an obvious answer, but that may be a flaw in the question and not in the ethical dilemma itself, which is (I think) trying to ask whether it is ethically better to intervene, spending time and resources, even if your intervention will make no difference, or is it better to save your time and resources for a situation where you can actually have some effect on the outcome?

    Again the question has a pretty obvious answer - one should spend time and resources in a manner that brings about the most benefit. But real life is messier than that, as Sophie points out. Since we cannot predict future outcomes with certainty, we are left to make guesses (hopefully educated guesses) about what effect our time, effort, and resources will have. In this thought exercise we can know the outcome of our decision prior to making it - a luxury that is all too often not available in the real world.

  11. A good one Edmund! There's not really a flaw in the question, saving people in year one does not mean they are 'saved from the rest of the war' and may be subject to danger in year two. Etc. But you got the point correctly, it is about an ethical dilemma. True there are a lot more parameters in real life as Sophie points out, but the idea of this case is that it makes no difference. I won't claim there is a correct or better/worse answer, but I'm hinting there's more, much more you can consider. Again, there's a subtle link to religion here, that sadly nobody seems to pick up :)