The Firing Squad Case

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to evaluate the firing squad case, a hypothetical scenario used in moral philosophy in an attempt to demonstrate that individuals are morally obliged not to participate in collectively harmful activities. A collectively harmful activity is an activity that is harmful, but is only in aggregate. For instance, driving your car is not individually harmful, but it is collectively harmful–while your emissions will make no difference at all to the future climate of the planet, the emissions of everyone together will make a difference. Let’s have a look at the case.

The firing squad case, as stated by Jason Brennan in The Ethics of Voting:

A ten-member firing squad is about to execute an innocent child. All shots from the squad will hit the child at the same time. Each shot, by itself, would be sufficient to kill him. You have the option of joining the squad and shooting the child with the others. No one is forcing you to join the squad–you are free to walk away.

The natural emotional response to this case is to say that one very obviously should not voluntarily join this firing squad, even though the question of whether or not one joins has absolutely no bearing on the outcome. It would follow from there that one has an individual moral duty not to participate in collectively harmful activities, barring substantial personal costs (if say, they were threatening to shoot you unless you joined the firing squad, the personal cost of being shot might provide one with a moral out). However, I think the natural emotional response is mistaken. Refusing to join the firing squad does not save the innocent child. The outcome is the same regardless of what one chooses to do. Most morally normal people do not take pleasure in shooting innocent children, so I imagine that most of us would have no desire at all to participate in the firing squad, but this is not because participating in the firing squad is harmful in any substantive way, but because we are squeamish about shooting innocent children. It’s not fun for us, it would very likely traumatize us, and consequently it is not in our interest to do it unnecessarily. If we were sadists, joining the firing squad would be a relatively harmless way for us to get our jollies–it would not result in any suffering, death, or others harms that were not already going to happen. It would be far better to join the firing squad than it would be to cause additional pain to other children, even in trivial amounts. Joining the firing squad is much better than say, slapping someone. While I probably wouldn’t want to be friends with the sort of person who joins the firing squad, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the act of joining the firing squad is itself immoral.

The case invites us to get too emotionally involved. It exploits more or less universal human biases in favor of children and obscures the moral issue. Let’s try a different formulation:

Ten people are going to participate in a go-kart race. Go-kart racing contributes to air pollution, a collective harm. You have the option of joining the go-kart race. Regardless of whether or not you personally participate in the go-kart race, the effects of the pollution on society will be identical. No one is forcing you to join the race–you are free to walk away.

For most of us, go-kart racing is something we’re more or less inclined to be neutral about. If we enjoy it, it’s not that important to us, and if we don’t enjoy it, we probably aren’t repulsed by it; it just isn’t to our taste. There might be a few readers out there who really love or really hate go-kart racing for some reason or other. If so, try to check your personal experience and look at it from a more or less neutral view. When offered the opportunity to decide whether or not to go go-kart racing, our impulse is usually to ask ourselves if we are in the mood, or if it sounds fun to us. We don’t usually consider the fact that go-kart racing contributes to a collective harm. There are millions of people who watch NASCAR, Formula One, or other kinds of professional racing, which are more or less different forms of go-kart racing on a grand scale. Some people are really into it, but for most people who participate in this kind of activity, it’s a casual entertainment. Refraining from participation would likely not cause any of us individually much disutility.

Nonetheless, for most people, the instinct runs quite against the firing squad case. In the go-kart case, we decide what we are going to do based on what we find pleasurable. We see our contribution to the collective harm of air pollution as individually unimportant. For the purposes of this argument, let’s assume that this is the case, so that our example is well and truly a collective harm. So we’ll assume it really doesn’t matter what one does individually to contribute to air pollution, the effects will be identical. No one will be harmed or aided by any action we take individually. If an activity has no effect on any other morally relevant agents, it makes sense that we would then consider ourselves exclusively. Would we benefit from participating in the act in question?

In the firing squad case, we absolutely would not. In the go-kart case, it likely varies from person to person. Some readers I presume would find go-karting advantageous, others would find it neutral or to some degree unpleasant. We could devise an additional case in which almost all of us would find contributing to a collective harm individually advantageous–say the case of deciding whether to drive 15 minutes to work every day or ride a crowded bus for an hour, particularly if one were to stipulate that it would be impossible to get work done on the bus due to noise or other distractions. Driving contributes much more to a collective harm than riding the bus does, but it is undoubtedly the case that a person who increases his commute time by a factor of 4 without getting anything else done during that time has been harmed. Given that choice, unless we were very pressed for cash and simply could not afford to drive, I imagine that most of us would choose the car over the bus.

My argument to this point has relied on this principle:

If an individual’s action does not harm any individual or group of individuals, that action cannot be immoral.

This principle makes individuals blameless for a wide variety of behaviors which, while themselves of no significant import, nonetheless contribute to collective harms. It would permit individuals to refuse to recycle, or to vote badly, or to use wood-burning stoves, or to drive gas-guzzling vintage cars, any number of things that fit the description of being individually harmless but collectively harmful. If you think any of those examples fails to meet that definition, discard it.

This opens up another question–collective harms are still harmful, so if individuals are not obliged to refrain from participating in collective harms, how do we stop them from happening? If each of us is not morally obliged to contribute to stopping pollution, doesn’t this leave no one with any moral obligation to do anything about it at all? How does one stop air pollution if no individual is morally obliged not to unnecessarily emit greenhouse gases?

I propose that while individuals cannot be morally obliged to refuse to participate in collective harms, collective bodies are morally obliged to put a stop to them. By “collective bodies”, I typically mean the state. I have no moral obligation not to drive my gas-sucking 1985 Jaguar XJ6 as much as my heart desires individually, but the state in which I live has a moral obligation to attempt to deter me from doing so in some way. Whether that means that the state creates incentives that encourage me to buy or drive cleaner cars, or constructs efficient and pleasant public transportation networks, or regulates emissions more tightly, or outright bans me from driving my car is a matter of policy choice. Some policy answers are likely more benign than others–a policy that convinces lots of people to give up gas-guzzling cars of their own volition is probably a better policy than one which bans them, insofar as the former impedes liberty less. How the state does it is beside the point; the point is that the state, a collective body with the power to make sweeping changes that alter the behavior of vast numbers of people, is obliged to solve the problem, not individuals.

The argument applies to all collective harms–it is the community’s job to creates rules, deterrents, and incentives that get people to refrain from participating in them. Individuals are not obliged to self-regulate their behavior in areas in which their contribution to the collective harm is not meaningful and they stand to gain some benefit, even a very trivial benefit, from contributing, because even a small gain for the individual is of greater value than the altogether meaningless individual contribution to the collective harms. All positive numbers are larger than zero. Collective harms demand collective solutions. This gets interesting when we look at voting, of course, because it implies that it is not the job of individual voters to refrain from contributing to the collective harm of electing bad governments, but that it is the state’s job to prevent voters from voting badly, either by educating them better (if possible) or by restricting the suffrage in some way. That way, of course, lies sophiarchism.