Even three famous philosophers (Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill) are not in agreement as to what a medical professional should do who was chosen to function as a concentration camp doctor with the chance to save thousands of lives but also with the fate of condemning some to death. Aristotle and Mill both would agree that the doctors should accept the position offered. Any doctor that accepted such a deal would do so not only to save his or her own life. The doctor would also do so in the hope that it would be possible to do the greatest good for the greatest number. Mill was a believer in utilitarianism, a belief that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill, 1987, p. 278). Sending some innocents off to death would be difficult, but does follow the Greatest Happiness Principle. Perhaps the best possible way to state this principle is in a quote from Aristotle who says, “The truly good and wise man will bear all kinds of fortune in a seemly way, and will always act in the noblest manner that the circumstances allow” (Amemiya, 2007, p. 137). Aristotle was in a way a utilitarian before there was such a name.
Kant would not be able to approve of any doctor accepting the bargain offered by the Nazis. The belief that only maxims “that can be universalized without contradiction” (Cahn, 2012, p. 396) should be permitted would not allow a doctor to make such a Faustian bargain. “By a lie a man throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man.” (Kant, 1964, p. 93). The decision regarding who lives or dies has no place within the sphere of universal law or universalized maxims. All three philosophers would want as many as possible to survive. However, it would only be Aristotle and Mill who would be able to make the tough choices necessary to create the greatest good for the greatest number. They both stand for consequentialism. A truly happy ending does not exist, but a best possible outcome does. Kant would not philosophically be able to justify the murder of some so that others can be saved. He stands for deontological ethics; he focuses on someone’s intention. Kant’s belief would not allow him to intentionally kill someone even if other people’s lives could be saved. This attitude can best be summed by the Bible verse from Matthew 7:12, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”
The choice of whether I would have accepted such an offer is something which required a lot of soul searching. I believe that ultimately I would have to accept the utilitarian maxim of doing the greatest good for the greatest number. Kant could not have accepted the offer made by the Nazis since it would have required violating the principles which held together universalized maxims. I find that the philosophical thoughts of Aristotle and Mill would lean toward accepting the offer made, even though done so with great reluctance. I hope that I would have the strength to make the right decisions that would save as many lives as possible. Here is to the hope that the world never again faces such a moral dilemma.
Amemiya, T. (2007). Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece. New York, New York.
Cahn, S. M. (2012). Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology (4th ed.). New
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Honderich, T. (2005). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.). New York, New York:
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Kant, I. (1964). The Doctrine of Virtue: Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals. Philadelphia, Penn-
sylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Mill, J.S. (2010). Utilitarianism and Other Essays. New York, New York: Penguin Classics.