Ethics Theory and
Imagine you are the mayor of a small town in Greece during World War II.1 You’ve had generally good relations with the occupying German forces, mostly Austrians, but then the peace is shattered when a small group of Greek guerilla fighters kills four German soldiers as they lounged on the beach. The guerillas, all from different islands than yours, are frustrated with their compatriots’ complacency toward their occupiers and are trying to motivate a wider resistance movement. They are eventually captured and tortured, but the SS officer who has come to oversee the interrogation reminds you of the standing policy: for every German death, twenty Greeks will be killed. Thus, you are brought to the town square—where eighty islanders have been gathered—and given a choice. If you kill—beat to death, it turns out—the three guerillas who survived the torture, the eighty will be spared and only sent to a labor camp for the duration of the war.
What should you do?
If you are like the hundreds of students to whom I’ve presented this scenario, and if you think it through with even a bit of care, your reaction probably is, indeed probably should be, “How can I possibly know the morally right choice?” You might have considered eighty lives versus three and decided to whack away. But it doesn’t take much pushing to see how that choice is at least problematic: Should we ever become direct participants in evil? Is that the kind of legacy you want attached to your name and memory? What is your relationship with the eighty hostages, or with the guerillas, and how should that affect your choice? Is killing them consistent with any reasonable standard of justice? Does your role as mayor bring special moral duties?