A better better ethical question

And a nod to Pfloyd. Floyd introduced a scenario requiring an ethical decision to be made in less than 5 seconds. The answers were interesting and all over the park, but what happens in a scenario where you have time to ponder your decision?

The classic: A mother with a small child is with a group of people who are trying to hide from the ‘enemy’. As the enemy searches, any sound will give away the group. The child begins to cry. Does the mother risk suffocating the child to save the larger group? Can she knowingly kill her own child to save all?


“Can she?”
But of course.

“Will she?”
No. Or, it is very unlikely. Her mother’s instincts will override any sort of logical reasoning regarding the “greater good” at the time. She will want to protect her baby.

But the ethical question:
“Should she?”
Could perhaps be answered thus: If we wish to base our values upon the conservation of (the greatest amount of) life, the woman should attempt to quiet her baby using any means possible.

Of course, it’s not that cut and dried. One might value young life over “old” life, for example. Or, the risk to their lives if captured may be acceptable. Or, they may not be out of danger if this one “enemy” happens to pass them by.

The scenario does not seems to exclude this possibility: Can the mother reveal herself and a her crying child while not exposing the rest of the group?

That would give the child a chance to live while protecting the group. Perhaps those who capture her will have mercy on her and her child, or they may have mercy on her child and not on her. But her self-sacrifice could satisfy the hunters either way and if so then it would increase the chances of survival for the rest of the group.

This was from the final episode of MASH.

The lady suffocated the child because Hawkeye was telling her to keep her baby quiet. We learn of this as he reveals it afterwards to the shrink.

There is SO much to learn from television.

“Television - teacher, mother, secret lover…” - Homer Simpson.

I remember hearing stories like this that happend during the Holocaust.

Good Question.

Personally I could never kill my own child but in ethics we need to take away emotion from situations.

So I would have to say risk sufficating the child for the better of the group. A risk is a lot safer than definatly kill the child.

For me personally I would have to leave the group.


This is a question for the mother, not for us. Only she can make the decision determined by the circumstances. It depends entirely on who she is and the events leading up to the situation. Who is this other group of people? Are they complete strangers? Or is a group of terrified friends huddling together? The right thing to do would of course be to quiet the child to save the larger group of people. This is simply because only one soul would be lost versus multiple, if the group was not discovered. However, I’d like to think it possible to cover the child’s mouth without killing him/her. :]

I think the question is affected by the nature of the enemy. if the enemy are people, Nazis or whatever, then anything bad that happens is on them. Babies cry, that’s just how they are- but the enemy doesn’t have to kill or capture anyone. Therefore, I would say that the mother isn’t blameworthy for the deaths of her companions if she doesn’t smother her baby. Is she blameworthy of the death of her child if she does smother him? Perhaps, but she shares that blame with ‘the enemy’, and they own the greater portion of it, I would say.
On the other hand, if the ‘enemy’ is a bear, or wolves, or killbots or otherwise not moral agents, then the responsibility for what happens falls on the mother and her companions, and the question becomes pretty much the kind of question tentative wants it to be- very difficult.

If I understand it correctly, the scenario presented here assumes that the child will die either way. Nothing wrong with that - such are the parameters of the example. The preservation of the life of the child is then not at issue. When you say that “one soul would be lost rather than multiple” I take it to mean that the group (including the child, of course) would be killed if discovered.

If we ignore the probability of the child dying if quieted (or of the group being killed if discovered), then the question changes as well, to something like “Is it right to make the child uncomfortable to save the group from a fate we do not know?” Not as interesting a question, but I suppose a moral one, anyway.

What is assumed here is the value of the lives of the group. Since the child dies either way, its death is not morally (or logically) related to that value - no choice can be made here regarding the life of the child. The only question here is the efficacy of the group’s actions in serving that value.

The question is, within a moral framework, not whether it is right for the mother to kill her child, but the rightness of killing the child. Making the mother do it is irrelevant, and introduces an unneeded pathos.

Interesting rationalizations, all. It seems to me that we cannot absolve or remove the mother from the equation. Regardless the motive, it is she who must make the decision and it is she who must commit the act.
Is there a clear cut ethical guideline to help her with her decision? What of the morality? If the taking of life is immoral, will the group share her guilt? The ‘enemy’ is irrelevant. It is simply the pressure being brought to bear. The question, decision, and acting out still lies with the mother.

Assume the time necessary to deliberate and construct a contingency plan, how would you counsel the mother? What construct would you offer her that would allow her to make a decision and carry it out?


If we can’t absolve the mother, it is only because you have said so - which is perfectly okay - it’s your example and so your universe. In doing so, you are claiming that we would be facing a different question if someone else grabbed the child and did the deed. If the enemy is, as you say, irrelevant, and the group is not seen as having agency, then I am left to wonder how this is a moral question at all.

Moral rules must have some measure of generality, or they cease to be moral rules at all. And how we (or the mom) feels about a given act is always irrelevant. Acting on present feelings alone is the antithesis of morality. Actions based entirely on emotion is not moral action. Injecting “guilt”, which is merely an emotion, also leads me to surmise that you are not really asking a moral question at all, but asking how we shoud feel about the death of the child.

I thought I understood the scenario, but it seems that you have a conception of morality that I can find no common ground in. Oh, well. Thought I could help. Maybe another time.

This sort of ethical dilemma shows, incontravertibly, why you shouldn’t have kids.

They are nothing but trouble.