What if a nuclear bomb were attached to a door?

Wednesday, Aug 19, 2009 2:19 pm
William Barnes

I came up with an interesting hypothetical at a bar last night. It addresses two general ethical questions: (1) is it morally wrong to cause the deaths of other people, and (2) is it morally wrong to deprive a good person of their liberty or chance at a full and happy life for your own well-being?

Here is the scenario: A man (a normal, not particular evil person) is in his house. Someone attaches the trigger to a nuclear bomb to his door such that he cannot leave the house without setting off the bomb. The bomb is hidden in a town somewhere. If it goes off, the man will be OK, but all the people in the town will die.

The first question is: is it wrong for the man to leave the house? Does he have to live the life of a shut-in for the sake of a bunch of people he doesn’t know? Would it matter if he knew them? Would it matter if the house was very comfortable or very uncomfortable?

The second question is: would it be wrong for someone from the town to bar his door from the outside?

I like the second question a lot. Most people would probably say that the guy shouldn’t leave his house. That destroying a town full of people so that you can go to the corner store is immoral. But can somebody else make that decision for him? It’s kind of like that anti-utilitarian story of the town where everybody is happy but this happiness is only possible if one person is tortured. If the torture were stopped, everybody would be unhappy. And most people would say that it isn’t right to torture one person so that everyone else can be happy. On that subject, I wonder if anyone has every asked whether it would be right for the one person to refuse to be tortured.

The hypothetical above could also be modified in many ways. You could add some uncertainty. The bomb may go off, but it may not. There is a bomb but it could be anywhere; including a remote mountain range or the middle of the ocean. The guy could have some special skill that is needed by society. Maybe he has the cure for cancer. Maybe he thinks he has the cure for cancer, but has to leave to test his theory. Maybe the man doesn’t know about the bomb and the town has to lock him up and can’t tell him why.