Jim and The Indians


“Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protesters of the advantage of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the prisoners himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, there will be no special occasion, and the captain will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of that kind is going to work; any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men are against the wall and the other villagers understand the situation and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?”

(B. Williams, ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’ in Smart & Williams, ‘Utilitarianism: For and Against’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1973)


14 Responses to “Jim and The Indians”

  1. 1 oinos_kai_alathea

    This question is interesting – consequentialism might tend to sat that Jim is responsible for nineteen deaths if he fails to kill one person; deontology might say that Jim is responsible for the murder of one if he chooses to save the rest; I guess that common sense/a lot of people might say that while it might be the morally good to save the nineteen, Jim couldn’t be required to take either course of action – killing one person to save others is too difficult an action to require of someone.

    So neither formal approach – at least simply speaking – deals with the situation in the typically acceptable way. A simple consequentialist approach seems to inappropriately blame Jim for failing to take an extremely challenging action that many people (emotionally speaking) might well find themselves unable to take. A simple deontologist approach doesn’t allow Jim to take an action which would save 19 innocent people. This approach might invoke the doctrine of double effect – separating the intended and merely foreseen consequences of Jim’s act – to explain why refusing to kill the one can be acceptable, as his intention is simply not to kill, and although he might forsee deaths as a result, these are not his intentions. But I don’t think that this solves the problem of showing how it can be considered immoral to save 19 people…

  2. Is the distinction between (active) killing and (passively) letting die of any significance here?

  3. 3 Kathy

    WOW What a story. The story is immoral in itself. I have an assignment to do in philosophy about this story. What David Hume and Immanuel Kant would have said to do. very hard question. It’s like the story of the cliff where the mother has her son that is evil and another boy that she adopted that is a good boy and she has to choose to save one only because she is not physically strong enough to pull both of them. Then again, it would be more difficult if she had her 2 sons that she loved the same. WOWOWOWOW let me know what you would do.

  4. 4 Jim Treglio

    Jim has no choice but to walk away. First, there’s no guarantee that the captain will honor his offer. He may just kill the other 19 anyway. Second, if Jim participates in the killing he is liable to be executed for committing murder. Third, Jim is not killing the twenty; the captain and his soldiers are. He has no moral responsibility for their deaths.

  5. 5 Megan Jones

    I am currently studying this in A2 Philosophy and i am now doing a 50 mark question about utilitarianism and integrity. I think that although Jim may feel guilty about killing this one person he will be able to take solace in the fact that he has saved the life of 19 people. If you look at it throught the teleological theory a decision should aim to produce the most benefit, so if Jim were to kill one to save 19 it would be okay because more people benefit.

  6. 6 Ben

    I would become enraged that they are killing innocent people just because they dislike the government. I would attempt to kill the soldiers even if I fail and am killed in the process.

  7. 7 Eaves

    This is a classic example of how teleological ethics can not only lead to immoral acts being committed but attempted to be rationalised later. When looking at the question of guilt one must weigh up the guilt to watching (not letting) innocent people die because he had no real choice or the guilt or murdering an innocent person knowing full well that they a) had personal responsiblity for the death of the Indian and b) that the there is no certainity that the Captain would allow the other 19 to live a stated in post 4.

  8. 8 Meehan

    An interesting situation. Am I currently studying this in AS Philosophy and Ethics. Personally, I think I would kill the one Indian rather than let the other 19 die.

  9. 9 Ogden

    I am also studying AS Philosophy and Ethics at the moment with Meehan as my classmate and Eaves as my tutor. In this situation I think that if we are to make a decision we have to assume the captain will stick to his word and let the other Indians survive, if we argue that he might not then the question is pointless. After that we then have to weigh up potential benefits of killing one Indian with the inevitable downsides. The upsides, obviously, are the lives of 19 Indians being preserved to the expense of one. The downsides are the likely imprisonment or possible execution along with the guilt of killing a man, all of which would effectively ruin your life. So the real question is whether you value your own life more than that of 19 strangers? To which I answer, yes.

  10. 10 Ogden

    Sorry about the above, the ‘yes’ means that I would kill the one man not that I think my life is worth more than that of 19 strangers.

  11. 11 Eaves

    Why stick so rigidly to the situation? Philosophy is about thinking and considering all possible and likely outcomes, and it does not require a great leap in logic to argue that the captain is more than capable of breaking his promise and killing more than the one indian? Although Williams mentions that it is a ‘special occasion’ what knowledge do we have of their customs? Could this be a trick by the sadistic captain? To stretch this teleological thought experiement further, when does the loss of life become unnacceptable? Does one go right upto taking 10 lives but stop at 11 because it then becomes immoral?

  12. 12 thinker

    I’ve read a version that refers to the “squeamishness appeal”, as an opposition to utilitarianism. Has anyone heard of this, and explain it to me? Thanks

  13. 13 Eaves

    After briefly looking at the idea (as I was unaware of this criticism in this form), I think it is this. Williams opposes this type of cosequencalist ethics, as he says that not only does utilitarianism suggest that Jim is right to kill the Indian, but it appears obviously right. If one would object on the grounds of not wanting to damage their moral integrity, a possible reply would be that they are ‘squeamish’ and should kill the Indian. Williams rejects this as the feelings that we get are integral to who we are and what moral decisions we make, if we feel that it is wrong, surely there is a problem.

    “Because our moral relation to the world is partly given by such feelings, and by a sense of what we can or cannot “live with,” to come to regard those feelings from a purely utilitarian point of view, that is to say, as happenings outside one’s moral self is to lose a sense of one’s moral identity: to lose, in the most literal way, one’s integrity” – Williams

  14. 14 Brendan

    It is probable that, the chances of the soldiers killing all twenty Indians if Jim walks away, is greater than, the chance that The soldiers will kill the remaining 19 after Jim picks an Indian at random.

    Therefore you have more of a chance of saving 19 lives if you sacrificed one. Surely you have to take the chance, it takes courage to take your inner turmoil out of the decision and put your faith in simple probability.

    Two points, firstly If I was on the wall, tied up, I would urge Jim to take the chance to save not only my life but 18 others of my group. Secondly If I was Jim, I would ask if anyone would be willing to die for the chance that the others may live, I would wager that someone would offer, but if not I would have to randomly choose.

    I would be happy to hear a contradictory argument to what I have said, and as I am knew to studying philosophy I would imagine that there would be many logical ones.

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