The Power To Kill Without Detection

The Power To Kill Without Detection

Suppose you discover a device which allows you to kill those whom you would. The device’s “batteries” never run out; it will always work and never disappoint. The device is of such excellence that you will never be caught in these killings nor even suspected in the deaths it causes. Nobody knows or will ever discover you have the device, not even after you are dead.

Perhaps the device uses the excess heat produced by global warming to run a cold-fusion zero-point energy quantum death ray, that when switched on tunnels through a wormhole from the device to the victim, and is thus untraceable.

Would you use the device? Would somebody else? Would you, if you could, ensure that this device is destroyed?

The temptation to zap enemies would be strong, perhaps overwhelming. Think of the good you could do with it! Cult leaders gone in the flick of a switch, maniacs with “gender-transforming” knives and chemical-filled syringes given the pronoun “deceased”, Planned Parenthood offices vacated; the world instantly a better, safer place.

This hypothetical scenario belongs in the class of academic “trolley problems”. The classic situation is to suppose you are confronted with a runaway trolley that will cream a group of unaware victims, unless you pull a lever which will redirect the trolley onto another track. The kick is that on this other track is a single person who will certainly be crushed.

Do nothing and let a handful die, or act and kill one. What do to!

Much has been written about this and similar scenarios, but all of the writing shares one thing in common. It’s same thing in common with our Death Machine. It’s mostly irrelevant.

I do not know what I’d do in a real-life trolley emergency. Probably start smacking controls that I know nothing about, hoping that something good would happen. I’d probably derail the train and kill everybody. Or I might want to act but worry that if I touched anything I’d do greater harm. Or I might figure, in the heat of the moment, that surely that somebody in the station will see the trolley coming and warn the others to hop out off the way. Or I might try and find a public address system to shout out a warning.

What answer I give now, sitting in the cool of the bar at cocktail hour, where I can puzzle out all my actions in the belief the problem itself is unambiguous, won’t give anybody much insight into what I or anybody would do for real.

The difficulty of creating unambiguous scenarios cannot be underestimated. In the academic trolley problem there are no words about the existence of a public address system. That means people are free to think there is. And thus they are free to think they might use it and save everybody’s lives.

Even if the academic trolley scenario is modified to include “No way of communicating with the people on the tracks is possible before the trolley hits”, it does not mean people asked to consider the modified scenario will believe it. People might say to themselves, “Oh, I’m sure there’s at least a window somewhere nearby.”

People bring all kind of baggage to these hypotheticals making the task of the researcher designing them doubly difficult. The scenario itself has to be crystalline, from which there cannot possibly be any deviation.

These scenarios can exist. But only in situations where all fuzziness and the potential for modification from the persons being quizzed can be removed. They work in math, for instance. If x + y = 12, and y = 7, what is x? There is only one right answer. Assuming only integer solutions, naturally. See? Another unspoken premise!

But if you modified the question into a scenario in which you hope to discover the hidden depths of citizens’ mathematical knowledge, you might be disappointed. Such a scenario might be, “You walk into a room with a chalkboard with the following math problem (as above). What number would you write?”

Then you could expect answers like, “42” (from a Douglas Adams fan), “My phone number” from a wag, and so on.

It’s not that nothing can be learned from scenarios. For instance, in the death-ray setup, I’d say I wouldn’t use it. Rather, I probably wouldn’t use it, because why? Because God is watching. That no other person sees would not excuse me from culpability (the same with all my sins!).

That means the real point of these scenarios are the hidden, tacit, or implied premises bring to them. Learn them and you learn something interesting.


  1. Jason

    Interestingly enough, a good YouTube channel called Vsauce went through the the work of getting approval, and running, the trolley problem in real life. It was, of course staged, but done in such a way as to be very convincing to the participants.

    The most interesting part of their results is just how many of the participants simply freeze up. The academic problem always results in a choice, because the person considering it is only done when he decides he is. But in the real scenario, time is short. As you say, the construction of the problem is *most* of the answer you’ll get back.

  2. I’d use the device without hesitation. But I’m a soldier by nature. You can “kill your way to peace”, if you do it hard enough for long enough. And select the right victims.

    The Trolley Problem becomes much more interesting if you stipulate that the single person on the other track is someone you know, or a spouse or child.

  3. Sheri

    The trolley problem perfectly describes a cop’s life—for real. That’s why self-righteous juries and self-righteous cops can be very problematic. Real life and death decisions in a split-second. The cop has prejudices (we ALL do) and the jury has ZERO stake in the whole thing (it IS the trolley problem to the jury). It’s not always philosophy. Sometimes is very, very REAL.
    (Firemen also do this, as do people in war. It’s more real than philosophers car to admit. Maybe they should study real people and not hypotheticals. Nah, it’ll give them a headache….)

    As for the weapon, how do you know it’s already out there???? Your description allows that it could easily be and could have been for centuries, passed down….

    “Or I might figure, in the heat of the moment, that surely that somebody in the station will see the trolley coming and warn the others to hop out off the way.” That’s why the USA will be communist and/or under Sharia law very soon. Same thought pattern played out in reality.

  4. “If x + y = 12, and y = 7, what is x? There is only one right answer. Assuming only integer solutions, naturally. See? Another unspoken premise!”

    Man, this guy is confused about math.

  5. Per

    The tacit assumption that strikes me first is that the number of deaths is somehow relevant to the decision. In response to Sheri, it could also be the willingness to make decisions like these, think government policies, that moves the USA to communism.

  6. Bruce

    How do autonomous vehicles deal with the Trolley Problem? Will they sacrifice their occupant(s) to protect non-occupants? Will they kill you to save a young child darting out into traffic?

  7. Ken

    The device Briggs describes for killing (not including the brilliantly creative means, which for all we know might be spot in) is the Tantalus Device, presented in the original Star Trek series, episode Mirror Mirror in 1967. Or, an early version of that.

    The Star Trek version was more capable as it also also allows the operator to eavesdrop on one’s peers & enemies to identify who’s naughty, nice, or plotting a coup. high priority targets for assasination are more easily ferreted out, and Tantulys even disposed of the bodies. That’s what to expect from 23rd century technology.

    There Kirk’s evil counterpart used it to maintain power & control, and, gain wealth selfishly. Presumably that’s what most us us would do as well. Some sooner than others. But the vast majority eventually as rationalizations & personal gains grow. A few sickos would do do for the sport of it.

    Basically, the ability to possess an element of near absolute power will,if not corrupt, allow a human’s unavoidable weaknesses to run amok to the limit so enabled.

  8. Ken

    The analog to the trolley problem is invalid.

    The trolley was initiated by another’s agency/action leaving one to choose to act to achieve less carnage or do nothing and by neglect allow worse to occur. Acting subjects the actor to risk of potential adverse consequences without much real upside for personal gain.

    The murder device gives the actor the ability to create multi-level situations that can be very selfishly beneficial, without risk of reprisals. This might include a trolley-esque scenario, but that reflects a tiny subset of more numerous nefarious possibilities.

  9. Mark

    “I’d use the device without hesitation. But I’m a soldier by nature. You can “kill your way to peace”, if you do it hard enough for long enough. And select the right victims.”

    Ditto. I think of it like vigilante justice – ie when the normal justice mechanisms aren’t working for one reason or another.

    The problem as I see it is not going overboard and lowering the bar for the device’s use. It starts with the mass murderers and ends with the jaywalkers 😛 …

  10. Well. We have two murderers among the commenters here.
    As to the device, I am reminded of Thanos in the Avengers movie.
    Or malthusians. Killing for the betterment.

  11. Nate

    The NBC comedy ‘The Good Place’ did a take on a “real life” trolley problem.

    They kind of make the same point later in the episode, as the big problem that the Moral Philosophy professor’s character has is that he cannot ever make decisions (hence he’d be a terrible moral philosophy professor). So we learn more about the person than the ‘right’ answer to the problem.

    The show is “meh” at best, but it had a neat premise and a few interesting ‘twists’.

  12. Ed – I did say I was a soldier. What do you think soldiers do? Speak harsh words to the enemy?

    War is murder and group punishment writ large.

  13. DAV

    Killer photo at he top.

  14. Joy

    Well said, Ed Bond.
    Don’t get me wrong, but,
    You need a Licence To Kill. So your enemy will just have to Die Another Day. Golden Eyes are not so evil. The Spy Who Loved Me liked playing with solitaire.
    The only Quantum Of Solace is knowing that Cassino Royale is nothing like the Cafe Royale in London. They do really nice Creme Bruille? could have googled it but what’s the point, with blueberries. Well, they used to.
    Some people don’t know their fantasies from fiction! The truth is often stranger than fiction.
    Even stranger when strangers are working really hard to make it seem otherwise.

    The answer to the question of the device is “NO”?
    Briggs proves the point that there are such things as stupid questions. Loaded ones. Complex ones. You can always tell a snake oil salesman when he can’t answer a question straight.

    However the answer to such a question may be some sort of ‘test’ to check for suitability. I hope I failed miserably.

    I recall another stupid one but He’d have to kill me.

    The trolley problem is easy. Ask a practical person with their head screwed on.
    The question is,
    “live or die”
    If you’re on the trolley.
    If you’r just observing, then the lives of the many would be saved. New information would have to be introduced to alter the decision. That is only the same as any other situation in life. People are either good in a crisis/emergency or they’re not. High intellect doesn’t come into it.
    Traders and fast jet pilots aren’t chosen for their intellect. Some very clever people can’t act at speed.

  15. McChuck. I was a sergeant.
    I could not unilaterally decide to engage the enemy unless first attacked.

  16. Joy

    The picture atop of this post comes from a BBC Horizon programme.
    It’s on youtube:
    ‘Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity — Jim Al-Khalili BBC Horizon”

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