The Organ Conscription Trolley Problem

Yesterday, Glenn discussed paying people to donate nonessential organs while they are alive. I will argue that we ought to more aggressively incentivize organ donations from the recently deceased.

Imagine that an out-of-control trolley is heading toward an innocent person who is for some reason strapped to the trolley tracks. You happen to be standing near a switch that can divert the trolley to a different track and represents the only available means of saving the person. Here’s where this trolley problem gets much easier than others you’ve seen: If you divert the trolley, it will unavoidably crush the body of an already-deceased person who is strapped for some reason to the diversion track. Are you morally permitted to flip the switch to save a life when doing so will crush a deceased person? Clearly you are. Indeed, you are morally obligated to do so.

What if the family of the deceased is standing nearby and urges you not to, pleading that if their loved one’s remains are crushed, it will interfere with his religious preferences about burial? No matter how much it upsets the family and would have upset the deceased, you are  permitted to divert. Now what if diverting  would save not one life but six or seven? And what if the trolley wouldn’t crush the deceased beyond recognition but would merely cause some internal change that would be invisible at burial? Surely the answers only become easier.

If you’ve answered as I have, we should be permitted to take the organs from the recently deceased when doing so represents the only way of saving the six or more people who need those organs to survive. Does this mean we should implement a routine salvage program where people must donate if they die with organs available for transplantation? Not necessarily. There may be financial or priority incentives that will induce sufficent donation such that we don’t have to go so far as to conscript lifesaving organs. But our current practices cause far to much unnecessary death and misery. See here and here for more. [Originally posted at Prawfs]

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