Consequential v/s Categorical Moral Thinking

Many a time in our lives, we come across situations where we make decisions that are associated with morality. The decisions we make reflect our philosophical ideas which are ingrained in us. The problem with philosophy is that you already know what you are doing but you are not sure whether it is justifiable or not.

Here, I want to illustrate a story that talks about morality. In 19th century, 4 sailors were left stranded in the middle of on ocean when their ship was wrecked by a severe storm. They could only salvage two cans of edible stuff and a dilapidated rescue boat which they used to stay afloat.

Over the next few days, in order to use the left over food only for emergency, they remained on empty stomach. However, after a week passed by, they could not resist any longer and started eating the food and a couple of days later, they finished it completely.

On day 16, one of the sailors fell ill and the 3 other sailors who were desperately hungry thought that one of them must sacrifice their lives in order for the 3 others to survive. The 3 sailors had families in London who were dependent on them while the sailor who was ill was an orphan.

Out of the 3 sailors who had families, one of them took a pen knife and killed the sailor who was an orphan and they started feeding on him to stay alive. This went on for the next 8 days when finally on the 24th day, a ship arrived to their rescue.

This was treated as murder and the 3 sailors were summoned to a hearing wherein the jury declared them guilty of murder.

The question, I have for you is — What would you do if you were the jury? I shall split this into different cases and then you decide which would be the right thing to do.

Case I — Guilty of murder

No one has the right to take others’ lives. It is not something fundamental. So, the sailors are indeed guilty!

Case II — Consequential moral thinking

Although it can be argued that taking away others’ lives is not justifiable, the fact that the 3 sailors had families dependent on them gives us a point to contemplate. Jeremy Bentham calls this consequential moral thinking. Consequential moral thinking, as the name suggests, associates morality with consequences of actions. According to him, a utilitarian approach needs to be taken. Actions should be able to balance out happiness and sadness/right and wrong/good and bad. Keeping this in mind, it can be said that in the interest of the families of the 3 sailors, taking away the life of a sailor who was an orphan was the best thing to do in that scenario.

Case III — Categorical thinking

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, was the proposer of categorical thinking. In this type, a person places the actions in a certain categories and chooses the least evil of the lot. In this case, it can be said that killing one sailor was better than letting all the sailors die of starvation.

I hope, the above example has given you a crude understanding of the topic. Until next time…

MK