Rescuing the miners and the babies

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 29, 2014

On Monday I was having dinner with Robin Celikates and a bunch of PhD students who were this week attending a Summerschool on Dirty Hands and Moral Dilemmas. Someone came up with the following case (none of us was quite sure about the author, but Derek Parfit seems like a likely candidate):

Case A: Rescuing the miners:
Imagine 100 miners who are stuck in a mine. They are divided in two groups. You can either rescue 50 (with certainty), but then the other 50 will be lost (this is strategy 1). Or you can try a different rescue strategy, which may potentially save all of them, but only at a 50% probability; there’s another 50% chance that all will die (strategy 2). Which strategy would you choose?

The people around the table had conflicting views, and the reasons we believed to have for a certain view did not convince the others at all. My choice was for strategy 2, since that gives everyone an equal chance to be rescued, and thus treats the miners morally equally in a certain sense. But Robin said that miners themselves would choose strategy 1, since they have a strong collective ethos/identity which includes that you save whom you can save. He claimed that we can deduce this empirical claim from some accidents that happened with miners who were actually locked up in a mine. (this is my recollection of the discussion, but Robin is very welcome to correct me !)

In the case of miners, we are dealing with adults and respecting their agency could plausibly be taken to overrule other reasons to choose for a certain strategy. But what if agency didn’t play a role? We could change the example, by turning the people-to-be-rescued into babies, who are too small to have anything resembling group-identity and agency:

Case B: Rescuing the babies:
Suppose 100 babies are stuck in a mega-crèche which is on fire. They are two floors with 50 babies on each floor. There are two rescuing strategies. Under strategy 1, you can rescue 50 babies for sure, but the other 50 will die. Alternatively you can try another strategy in which all 100 babies have a 50% chance of being rescued (strategy 2).

Which strategy do you choose, and why? And if you choose differently in case A and case B, then why so?