W. D. Ross’ Pluralistic Deontology: the Cryostasis Dilemma

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W.D. Ross’s Pluralistic Deontology outlines seven prima facie duties: the duty of fidelity; duty of reparation; duty of gratitude; duty of justice, duty of beneficence; duty of non-maleficence; and the duty of self-improvement. In every action, these duties must be sustained, and if they are not then the action is unethical. The prima facie duties are also not reducible, for instance, one might not be obligated by the duty of gratitude but could still be obligated by the duty of justice. In addition, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism and Kant’s Deontology and the Categorical Imperative both define one duty to be upheld for all actions and in every circumstance. Utilitarianism upholds happiness to the greatest amount of people as the maxim. Furthermore, Mill’s Utilitarianism defines happiness with great ambiguity and relativity while Ross’s prima facie duties provides clear definitions of ethical duties. Kant’s Categorical Imperative uses the maxim of the golden rule, “treat others only in ways that we would accept ourselves,” to define ethical actions. However, the prima facie duties are circumstantial, for instance if one has not received any favours then they do not need to fulfill the duty of gratitude as it does not apply to them. And there are circumstances where one might have to abandon a duty of fidelity such as if one becomes sick on the day they planned to meet a friend. Yet, neither of these rules mean that the duties disappear entirely, so if one does receive a favour later on then the duty of gratitude must be upheld; if one does have to postpone a planned meeting then they must later uphold their duty of reparation as a show of apology. Furthermore, Kant’s categorical imperative does not provide solutions to ethical decision making when two maxims conflict with each other. 

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On the other hand, Pluralistic Deontology states that if two duties come into conflict, then the duty that has the most ethical impact must be upheld; to solve the dilemma one must compare the ethical consequence of acting on one duty versus the other duty and act on the duty that would have the least negative consequences to the individual or group (bioethics module pp. 3). With that said, this essay will examine and solve the cryostasis dilemma through the framework of Ross’s Pluralistic Deontology.

To begin with, it is important to address the ethical dilemma of the contracts. Since the institute signed a contract with the individuals that are presently in the cryostasis chambers, a breach of these contracts would go against the institute’s duty of fidelity. Switching the current occupants out of their chambers would also infringe on their health and benefit as it would lead to their death. Thus, the institute would also fail to uphold their duty of beneficence. However, the removal of some of these occupants could benefit future society as there would be a large impact to the future society. This impact would arise because the institute would be refusing to preserve individuals with talents such as medical knowledge, political leadership, agricultural practices, and spiritual guidance, all of which are skills that would positively impact the sustainability of a future society. Thus, it is justifiable to switch some of the current occupants, since the impact of allowing these people to die would be far greater than the impact of allowing people without skills to contribute to a future society.

The first occupant that should be replaced is the playboy; and they should be replaced by the communist leader. Before continuing, it is important to address why the communist leader should be chosen over the democratic leader. There are three duties to be considered here when considering the profile of each candidate: the duty of justice, the duty of beneficence, and the duty of self-improvement. The democratic leader was elected, to the best of the institute’s knowledge, because of their oratorical skills but not because of their ability to improve the standard of living. In other words, while the communist leader is impartial to democratic reform, they have shown an ability to provide distribute wealth fairly and benefit the well-being of the state and its citizens as seen through their ability to increase the state’s standard of living and economic security. This is a crucial skill set to have to ensure the continuity of a new society. The impact of swapping the playboy and his subsequent death would be miniscule in comparison as the playboy’s addiction would only be a burden to thwe state as it would require the state to consider using its funds to create drug addiction support centres. In a different circumstance, such centres would be a non-issue but in a circumstance where the state must prioritize its monetary funds to rebuild itself, it will be an economic strain.

In regards to the surgeon, it would be unethical to allow him a place in one of the cryogenic chambers due to their past predatory behaviour. Allowing the surgeon to live would place future patients in threatening situations. But one must also consider the duty of beneficence, as one is exchanging one life for another. However, the preservation of the surgeon’s life comes into conflict with the duty of non-maleficence which states that one must not harm others. While this is the case, the impact this would have on the safety and well-being of the surgeon’s future patients far outweights the preservation of the doctor’s life; especially when considering that there are other facilities and there is a likely chance there is another surgeon at one of those facilities without a criminal history of sexual assault. The outcome of allowing the surgeon to live is more perilous as multiple patients could be sexually assaulted in the future.

The next replacement should be the children’s movie director. Entertainment might serve to uplift the emotional stability of future children, but it is not necessary. With the scope of benefits being narrow, it is more imperative to preserve the life of the water specialist for if one considers the potential outcome that clean drinking water might be hard to find, then the water specialst’s survival would be critical. The decision to preserve the water specialist over the director would bring greater safety to the new society and allow for the self-improvement of citizens in the future state. Likewise, the founder should also be replaced as they are not necessary to continue the operation of the institute since the knowledge of medicine and technology derives from the scientists and research experts. The founder should be replaced with the environmental scientist, who like the water specialist can provide useful expertise to ensure the environmental sustainability of the future society. In essence, both of these scientists skills are integral to the future of the new society.

Of the current occupants, the last one to replace is the physicist. While the physicist possesses important scientific knowledge, it is not an expertise that would be necessary to the rebirth of civilization. At the end of this pandemic, humanity is seeking to continue life on Earth, not to escape it. Therefore, the spiritual leader should replace his cryogenic chamber as they can provide citizens with the necessary hope and spiritual guidance that would be required to uplift their spirits and maintain morale. Aside from this, it is the duty to acknowledge favours and return them that drives this decision as the spiritual leader is also a human right’s activist. This is work that is done out of one’s moral commitment to society and as such preserving their life is a debt that society must pay back to the leader.

The next three slots should be given to the farmer, his wife, and his daughter. The first reason why is because they are essential to the repopulation of the future state. Secondly, due to the close family ties policy, the institution must follow the duty of fidelity. It would be unethical to retract a contractual obligation. Here, a contradiction arises, but Pluralistic Deontology states that the duties are circumstantial. As mentioned earlier, the circumstantial variable which justifies the breaking of the contractual obligation to keep the initial occupants in the chambers was the fact that switching them with other candidates would benefit the longevity of a great majority of people in the future. The decision to switch each candidate was made upon carefully examining the ethical weight of various duties and the decisions that brought the greatest positive impacts were made.

The next slot should be reserved for my colleague. With that said, my colleague and I would deceive the hijacker, begin the cryogenics process, abruptly stop it, and then eliminate it him by removing him from the chamber. While this would indefinitely betray the gangster, and break our duty of fidelity to him, it would protect the innocent bystanders at the current facility and the population of the future from his violence. As a duty to preserve the future of human civilization it is necessary to preserve my colleagues life so they can continue their research on the pandemic and future cryogenic science. Lastly, my daughter should be given the last chamber, and this would indefinitely eliminate me and her dog. Deciding to “kill” the dog would certainly hurt my daughter, and thus would require me to follow a duty of reparation which is to preserve her life so she can continue living. Also, I would ensure that my colleague could raise my daughter in my absence, as another extension of reparation.

All of these aforementioned choices can be opposed by Kant’s Deontology and Categorical Imperative. Kant’s Deontology, more specifically the Categorical Imperative states that people should, “act only on principles they can accept everyone else acting on” (bioethics module 2 pp. 5). In other words, the maxim that justifies an ethical action must be universal and objective. For instance, murder is considered a universally immoral act, as it brings death. Likewise, the act of switching a person out of the cryogenic chamber with another candidate, or leaving certain candidates also brings death. In essence, if both acts bring death, then both acts are unethical. So in other words, if one believes that murder is wrong because it takes human lives than the same must be true of taking a human life under a different circumstance. This then applies to the decision to kill the gangster protecting innocent bystanders at the laboratory would not justify the act of consciously planning to kill a person. In essence, the killing of the gangster is planned - but it is also an act of self-defense - of not just defending one individual but a larger group. The elimination of a “grey zone” occurs because according to Kant’s Categorical imperative, “requires that one is consistent, holding them self and others to the same standard, and not act hypocritically by acting on principles that we wouldn’t accept others acting on” (bioethics module 1 pp. 5). In addition. By this same principle, the circumanstial act of breaking the duty of fidelity would also be considered unethical because Kant’s Categorical imperative would say that since a contractual vow was agreed upon, it would be unethical to break this vow under any circumstances. Breaking the contract would be hypocritical to the legal commitment that it is designed to uphold.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative also states that one should “treat others the way they want to be treated.” Therefore, if one poses the question, “would I want to be lied to and swapped out of my chamber even if it preserves the future of humanity?” and answers to themselves, “no,” then the act of swapping anybody out of the cryogenic chamber would not be ethical. Lastly, according to Kant, he states, “never treat another person only as a means to our own ends, but always also as an end in themselves”. Using a person as a means to an ends, means to think of that person tranascationally as an object to achieve a goal or outcome is unethical. Thus, to rationalize the decision to keep certain people such as the environmental scientists, the farmer’s family, the spiritual leader, and so forth based on what they can do for the future civilization is using people as a means to an end. Thus, Kant would say that basing decisions in this way is unethical.

It is clear that very few people would be willing to sacrifice themselves but this is why Ross’s Pluralistic Deontology is crucial as it provides more nuances and ethical duties that change the landscape of the dilemma. If one only acts on their desires and maxims, and if those desires or maxims lead to selfish gains or are not focused on the well-being of a majority over a minority, then those maxims and desires can inevitably bring harm to a large number of people. Ross’s Pluralistic Deontology allows for more reconciliation and factors in the circumstances of the situation in which ethical decisions are made to justify them. In the end, Ross’s Pluralistic Deontology is critical to solve this dilemma. 

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