An ethical dilemma

January 7, 2014

I can’t quite remember where and when, but a long time ago I heard about or read about an ethical dilemma regarding responsibility and guilt. I think it was in the wake of a Dutch trial in ’94 where a man was charged[dutch newspaper article] with murder and assault by injecting his ex-girlfriend with HIV tainted blood. Although undoubtedly a heinous act, does it qualify as murder before the victim dies? And does it qualify as murder right away if the victim will not die for several years from AIDS complications? At any rate, the ethical dilemma is happily fictional and goes like this:

Three students share a dorm apartment in Albequerque. Alec, Basil and Callum. Alec is a bit of a health-nut and goes hiking —alone— in the desert every weekend. He packs his bag on Friday evening, making sure to include two bottles of water. Basil and Callum both hate Alec to the point of murder and they’ve both decided to try and kill him. However they are not aware of each others feelings and plans. At 11pm Basil sneaks into Alec’s room and pours a small amount of lethal poison into the second water bottle, lest Alec drink it while he’s still close to civilisation. Half an hour later Callum sneaks into Alec’s room, takes the second bottle and empties it before putting it back.

Alec’s mortal remains were found by hikers 3 months later about half a day’s hike from the nearest water source. Who killed him?

The reason this is a dilemma of course is that it’s not obvious who’s ultimately to blame for Alec’s death. It’s clear that both Basil and Callum tried to kill him, so they can at least be charged for attempted murder, but the ultimate responsibility is vague.

We can’t say that Basil killed Alec as the poison was never ingested. It never even came close to Alec as it was poured down the sink while he slept. If Basil had done nothing, the outcome would have been exactly the same.

However it’s also not clear that Callum killed Alec. If Callum hadn’t emptied the bottle then Alec would have died much sooner through poisoning rather than dehydration, a far more definitive death. In fact, one could make the point that Callum’s actions postponed death for several hours, not only —briefly— saving Alec’s life but also giving him a real chance of survival.

If Basil wasn’t involved at all, this would be a clear-cut case. However by doing something which ultimately had no physical effect Basil effectively removed a large portion of responsibility from Callum, and I’m not at all sure where it went. Is there such a thing as conservation of responsibility?

4 Responses to “An ethical dilemma”

  1. dannyb Says:

    If this was a real situation then it sounds like the perfect murder. There would be no evidence to convict Basil as there would be no traces of poison in Alec’s body, even though there might be residue found in an empty bottle, nobody would go looking for it.

    No one would know that Alec didn’t have two full bottles before he started out, so Callum is free and clear.

    The only person to blame here is Alec himself for not realising that his bag was 2 Kgs lighter before setting out.

    Coroner’s verdict “Death by Misadventure”

    Later in life both Basil and Callum find unhappiness again and think that the only solution is murder, they did it once and got away with so why not a second time.. or third. Buoyed by their over confidence, their stupidity gets the better of them and they go to prison as lifers with no chance of parole. I doubt with names like Basil and Callum -no offence to the Basils and Callums of this world- that they would get an easy time in a New Mexico Prison, so they take their own lives as an easy way out.

    • David Rutten Says:

      They’d get thrown around like a dog toy (to channel Frankie Boyle).

      • dannyb Says:

        … and thus the checks and balances of the universe keep the world turning.

        Another thought would be that as this is a fictional story anyway Sherlock -visiting New Mexico on a road trip after crashing John and Mary’s honeymoon in Vegas- would have deduced that these exact events had transpired. But due to no other tangible evidence other than both sets of finger prints on one, and only one of the bottles (the same one with the poison residue… keep up ppl) Basil and Callum exercise their Fifth-amendment right to not self-incriminate themselves, both get off stock free.

        Realising their close encounter with incarceration for life vow to never do it again and go on to live long and prosperous lives as bankers, where their names would actually fit well.

        Who said life was fair?

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