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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?