Sacrificing One for the Good of Many: The Survival Lottery

If someone is dying, is it the duty of society to save them? Standard moral ethics says, yes; but under what circumstances? Is society responsible for saving a convicted serial murderer facing the death penalty? What if a building was on fire and trapped in one room is your family of four and in another, a room of one hundred elementary school students, who is to be saved if time only allows for one door to be opened? How about a patient in desperate need of a vital organ? The answer to these questions is obvious according to John Harris and other Utilitarians like him such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. According to this theory of ethics, the best decision would be one that favors the greater good of society. For example, which option would save more people? In the example of the convicted murderer, society may benefit more from going through with the execution to ensure that no more lives will be taken at his hand. By sacrificing one person, many others will be saved. This same idea is demonstrated in the example of the burning building. Harris would say that saving the room of one hundred elementary school students would be the morally right choice, even if this means letting your own family die. The idea is that saving one hundred lives would be better than saving a mere four. Through the principals of John Harris’ survival lottery, it may also be argued that by saving the children, society is better off as those children now had a chance to grow up and do great things for society. This versus the older patrons who have lived out more of their lives than the young children.

Harris’ major argument focuses on the third scenario in regards to saving someone who is dying from some kind of organ failure whether that be kidney, heart, lungs, liver, etc. In his essay, The Survival Lottery, he proposes a solution in regards to dying transplant patients. He proposes that society implement a lottery in which everyone would be given a number. When  two or more patients are in need of a transplant and no suitable organs can be extracted from patients who have died of natural causes, one citizen would be picked at random to supply those organs. This being offered to transplant patients who have acquired these ailments naturally and not from their own merit such as liver failure from excessive drinking or lung cancer caused by smoking. Although Harris acknowledges that the person chosen from the lottery would die, he justifies this by arguing that killing one person to save two or more people is morally sound. He also points out that yes, the person donating the organs will be innocent but likewise are the people dying from organ failure from no fault of their own (Harris 215). This form of Utilitarianism is referred to as act-utilitarianism in which “happiness is an intrinsic good- the only intrinsic good” (Vaughn 105). This means that the only thing that should be considered in making ethical decisions is the net amount of happiness or the “amount of happiness that each possible action generates” (Vaughn 105). Therefore according to Harris, by sacrificing one healthy person in order to save two or more people, society will have chosen to fulfill the greatest intrinsic good, choosing the lives of several over the life of one.

The question now becomes, how do we calculate what will produce the greatest amount of net happiness? Jeremy Bentham would claim the answer to this is hedonic calculus “which quantifies happiness and handles the necessary calculations” (Vaughn 106). Harris then points out that this calculation is “only (a figure of) the total amount of happiness for each action” (Vaughn 106). This means that the happiness of each individual is not necessarily distributed evenly or even taken into account. This can be seen in Harris’ survival lottery. To achieve the intrinsic good, an innocent person would have to die, but in turn, several sick patients would get to live. Even as this fulfills the intrinsic good, the distribution of happiness is obviously uneven, being given solely to the sick patients and taken completely away from the donor.

One of the major arguments against Harris’ proposal is the fact that doctors would be the ones to carry out these surgeries which would result in the purposeful death of the donor. This goes against their moral code of conduct which requires them to do all they can to save the life of their patient, if at all possible. The fact that the doctors would be causing a person to die at all would be against their Hippocratic oath and therefore, immoral. Harris points out this argument and explains “(doctors) might maintain that a man is only responsible for the death of someone who’s life he might have saved” (Harris 253). He goes on to say that, “this is why a doctor may be a murderer if he refused or neglected to treat a patient who would die without treatment” (Harris 253). Harris  is quick to defend this with the point that “failure to adopt (this) plan will also involve killing the innocent, rather more of the innocent than the alternative” (Harris 254).  Harris is once again referring to the idea of incentric good by making the point that all patients in this scenario would be innocent and argue that the question should not be hinged on that fact alone, but rather the number of innocent people who will be saved by this action. Harris’ main defense for his proposal is that there is no difference at all between murdering someone and simply sitting by while they die naturally. This being especially true when someone could intervene and save their life. His point is reinforced when begging the question “as to whether failure to save as many people as possible might not also amount to killing” (255). Suggesting that if an innocent person is not killed in order to save the lives of several other human beings, we are then condemned as the murderers.

It is also argued that in a society where citizens are aware that at any moment their number could be called, all sense of security would be lost. Harris explains “under such a scheme we would never know when we would hear them knocking on the door” (Harris 255). But he is quick to point out that the chances of actually being chosen are minimal. He also points out that in a world that praises individuality “we might want to reject a society in which it appeared that individuals were seen merely as interchangeable units in a structure, the value in which lies in having as many healthy units as possible” (255). This proving that in a society of this kind, one is only alive to serve the purpose of maintaining the health and numbers of the population; that one human life is merely a pawn for the greater number of “units”.

Another objection to Harris’ survival lottery is the idea of playing God and the feeling that it is wrong to reappropriate life as one sees fit. This speaks to the fact that one’s fate is controlled by God and no man has the right to change another’s destiny. Harris counters this argument by turning it on its head and explaining that by not intervening, we are also deciding the fate of the transplant patients, just in a more indirect way (Harris 255). In addition, Harris brings to light other objections such as the fact that human beings feel they are entitled to the principle of self-defense. He claims that “the feeling that no man should be required to lay down his life for others makes many people shy away from such a scheme, even though it might be rational to accept it on prudential grounds” (Harris 256). This means that a society that would be willing to lay down their lives for that of another at any given time would be the ultimate caring and moral society, self-entitlement and personal rights stand in the way of letting this happen. Harris goes on to point out that “in such a world, a man who attempted to escape when his number was up or who resisted on the grounds that no one had the right to take his life, might well be regarded as a murderer” (Harris 254). This turns the idea of modern morals on its head and suggests that the prey is actually the predator. This further arguing that the things we tend to think of as morally right may just be a different side of a double-edged sword.

Harris’ proposal also raises the question of age distribution within the population. Another critique of the survival lottery is that elderly citizens would require more transplants than young patients. This would suggest that the world would be left with a population where the elderly outnumber the youthful. Harris addresses this by arguing that there would be “no reason to suppose that a program could not be designed for the computer that would ensure the maintenance of whatever is considered to be an optimum age distribution throughout the population” (Harris 254). Through this point, Harris introduces more conditions under which patients would receive transplants. Along with the natural ailment requirement, Harris is proposing that there would also be an age restriction placed on the procedures. This ensuring that the population stays balanced while reinforcing his vision of ensuring that everyone in society had a chance to live a long and happy life. These conditions also speak to the fact that the quality of lives that are to be saved will be taken into consideration proving that Harris is not only out to save as many people he can with this proposal, but to ensure that the lives saved are ones of optimal value.  

So does Harris’ idea of the survival lottery actually make moral sense? The answer, however complicated is yes. But how would it effectively help produce more happiness and ensure the intrinsic good? In a completely impartial world, Harris’ theory would be successful in saving more people, contributing to the greater good and ensuring that everyone had a fair chance at a long and happy life. If everyone in society accepted this type of mindset, the greater intrinsic good would always be fulfilled and the maximum amount of happiness preserved, although not equally distributed. The conditions outlined regarding the transplant patients’ qualifications for the procedure, shows a more human aspect to the scheme and reassures the audience that the plan is fair and just. Harris does an excellent job of defending his proposal citing several different examples which cause the reader to think critically and topples the common idea of modern ethics.


Works Cited

Harris, John. “The Survival Lottery.” The Ethical Life Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 183-91. Print.

Vaughn, Lewis. Beginning Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2015. 32-40. Print.

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