It’s not often you hear me disagree with something that Greg Koukl, from Stand to Reason, has written or said. Indeed, I heartily agree with his series on Decision Making and the Will of God. However, on his 27 September 2009 radio show, he made a commentary regarding utilitarian decision making and how it is applied to a specific moral dilemma scenario. His commentary was lengthy, and I recommend you listen to it in its entirety (begins at approx. 1:01:20 into the radio show). He presented a scenario, which was presented to him, as follows:

A group of the French Resistance, including families with infants, are hiding from Nazi occupiers. One of the infants wails inconsolably and will, more than likely, alert the approaching Nazis. The infant’s life is terminated – probably by smothering the child so it’s not making noise… to improve the group’s chances of survival. But a moral imperative: Murder is wrong, has been violated. A case for utilitarianism could be made. However, is this not a case of moral relativism and, even though it’s horrific, something that’s necessary?

In responding to the scenario, he concluded that it would be expedient for the group to murder the infant. Take note that I am summarizing his statements here and, to reiterate, one should listen to his commentary in full for a complete understanding of what he stated. His reasoning included (my summary),

Utilitarianism as a standard model of moral action is relativistic (the end always justifies the means, but the end isn’t always a moral good). However, this does not mean that considering the means to an end does not entail legitimate considerations.

Facing the scenario as an objectivist: a decision has to be made, taking into consideration relative circumstances and utilitarian aspects.

This is a moral dilemma in that there are only two choices and each of the two choices, in isolation, would be wrong to do. Note: taking circumstances into consideration, in your moral decision making, is not relativism. If it were, there would be no moral dilemma in this scenario.

In the case of this moral dilemma, the guiding principle is that human life has transcendent value and should be protected. In this situation the obligation to protect one innocent life (the baby’s) is in conflict to protect the lives of all the other people in the group.

Which decision does the greater good? The morally obligatory action would be to silence the baby, although difficult and tragic. The only other choice would be much worse (and the crying child’s life seems to be forfeit anyway).

It seems to me that, while Greg’s decision is based on an objectivist methodology, he has placed too much weight on the concept of the “greater good”. Is the greater good truly good when it encompasses betraying our commitment to certain moral truths? Despite any attempts at circumventing the rationale for the action, smothering the crying infant is still murder.

Consider the complications that arise when one envisions how the proposed scenario might actually play out. I realize that the scenario is carefully set up to invoke a moral dilemma, and that life is more complicated than the illustrations in our pre-packaged philosophical scenarios. However, a little tweaking of the scenario can also help illustrate some of the complications that may arise.

In Greg’s commentary he noted that the mother of the infant may not want to have the infant silenced (murdered). Yes, I think that would be a safe bet. Let’s run with that and suppose that not only does the mother not want her child killed, but she herself begins screaming when the majority of the group decide that is exactly what must be done. Not to worry, though, because while one of the larger males in the group rips the child out of the mother’s arms, a couple of other males wrestle her to the ground to stifle her screams. After the child is killed the mother, understandably so, cannot keep from crying… essentially the same problem faced earlier with her infant. Despite their pleas, and subsequent threats, the woman will not relent from her incessant mourning.


That would be the sound of her neck being broken so as to silence her. All, for the good of the group.

A moment later, in walks her husband who had been away from the group on reconnaissance. After seeing that both his wife and child have been summarily executed he begins a wild, and loud, fight with several of the males in the group.


That would be the sound of his throat being slit so as to silence him. All, for the good of the group.

Unreasonable? Well, consider a scenario where we have a group with 6 adults and 5 infants, in which all the infants are crying. Since 6 is greater than 5, are we justified in silencing the infants?

How about if the group has 5 adults and 6 infants, and all the infants are crying? Tough luck for the adults, I guess, because 5 is less than 6.

What would happen if the group consisted entirely of adults, yet one of them has a severe case of hay fever (anyone been in Oregon in the Spring? Ugh!). There the poor sap sits, sneezing and honking, obviously having forgotten to take his Claritin.

“Aaaa-choo! Aaaa-choo! Honnnk! Honnnk!”


And pity his poor neighbor suffering from a cold.

“Cough! Cough! Hack! Hack!”


At a certain point, I think, the greater good argument begins to crumble in on itself. It’s one thing to offer one’s self in sacrifice, and quite another to force an ultimate cost upon someone else. Is the good gained truly worthy of the act committed?