When Principles Collide

One of the things about growing up with a sheltered life is that you rarely ever have to stand up for your principles. This could be due to several reasons: maybe they’re not really your principles, but your parents’; maybe you’re just not placed into situations where conflicts occur; maybe your principles themselves seek to avoid confrontation. I recall so many times when I was younger that I had some well thought-out idea for something but then instead went along with someone else’s idea without question, in the interest of avoiding conflict. I’m not saying that you should always insist what you’re doing is correct, but I think on the spectrum I was too far on the side of passivity.

Throughout college (and perhaps starting senior year of high school), I found myself more often at points where I needed to disagree. It wasn’t really conflict for the sake of conflict, but rather to get to the truth or to make a situation better, by challenging faulty ideas or plans. I think this change is evident on my blog: in the past, most of the topics I wrote about were very non-controversial, but recently, they have been more questioning of commonly held ideas. Granted, my online persona (including on Facebook) and my real life character are still quite different—in real life I don’t go around seeking to criticize peoples’ religious beliefs, an activity that is reserved for the internet. That’s another topic.

Contradictory Principles

For a really simple example, consider the principles “be honest” and “don’t be a jerk.” Everyone follows these principles, and most of the time they support each other. You’d be quite a jerk if you lied to your friends about so many things to the point where nothing you say has any credibility. However, when you find minor fault in something someone did, you could be honest and tell them, but most of the time it’s better to be silent about it. Of course, the best choice depends all on the situation.

I respect both ownership rights and aesthetic cleanliness—do I pollute whitespace by citing the image source, especially if the image isn’t all that special?

Perhaps a more pertinent contradiction is that between tolerance of others and… tolerance of others. For example, most of my audience probably tolerates the LGBT community. Yet, there are many people in America who do not. This leads to a tolerance paradox (that I think many of us don’t think about): Is is possible to simultaneously be tolerant of LGBT individuals and tolerant of people who are intolerant of them? Is a hypothetical all-tolerant person also tolerant of intolerance?

This depends somewhat on how you define tolerance, but it points to a deeper issue, that simply using the principle “tolerate others” is insufficient in these fringe cases. There must be some overriding principle that tells you what to be tolerant of and what not to be tolerant of. I think that being intolerant of intolerance is still tolerant.

In chess, one of the most important principles, among the first to be taught to new players, is to never lose their queen unless they can get the opponent’s queen as well. While this is a great principle 99.9% of the time, there are cases where losing your queen (for no pieces or just a pawn in return) is the best move, and there are even cases where it is the only non-losing move. It’s because the principle of “win the game” overrides the principle of “don’t lose your queen.”

Interestingly enough, even meta-principles can contradict one another. For me, “stand up for your principles” is a good principle, and so is “be open-minded about your principles.” Often blindly standing up for principles is a very bad idea (in the typical novel/movie, the antagonist may have good intentions but focuses on one idea or principle to the exclusion of all others, thus causing more overall harm than good; on the other hand, this principle seems required to become a politician).

Throughout my first two years of college, I wanted to go into academia, and I naively shunned finance because I thought people went into it just for money. Of course, once you start thinking about what to do after college and the need for money comes closer, you realize that you need money to live(!) and that despite the negative outside perception, the industry is not all evil people trying to figure out how to suck away all your money. Of course, on the “stand up for your principles” front, this change fails pretty hard, but it follows “being open-minded about your principles,” which I consider to override the first in this case. After all (to add one more layer of contradiction), it is standing up for the principle of being open-minded.

Ethical Dilemmas and Human Morality



This article is the result of numerous debates I’ve had concerning ethics and morality. The debates were very friendly in nature, as we tried to pick each other’s brains. Sometimes we agreed on certain situations, other times we completely disagreed. It was very interesting to see the way different people view the world.

Some key information for the rest of the article:

  • The debates were largely conducted by creating hypothetical situations (thought experiments) and asking each other what we would do in such examples.
  • Often when one said X for a situation, we would try to adjust one variable to change the situation slightly, in order to see what exactly in the situation was important. This is sort of like the scientific method applied to ethics.
  • Most of the group was not highly religious. This post is written by an atheist.
  • The group consisted of Cornell students.
  • There was no name-calling or mocking in the debates. Disagreements were handled with civility.

Situation 1: The iPhone Return Dilemma

This is based on a real-life example. I could simply the situation considerably, but because of the reality of it, I am including all the important details.

Suppose your income was largely based on buying and reselling iPhones for higher prices. That is, you could buy an iPhone for $400 and resell it on eBay for $800 to someone in a country where the iPhone is not sold.

Now, someone in South Africa buys your iPhone. There is a 14-day return policy; however, this 14-day count starts the moment the transaction is made. The iPhone takes 22 days to ship from the USA to South Africa. The buyer is aware of this. But when the iPhone arrives, the buyer finds that the iPhone does not work, and takes it to a local repair shop. The repair shop opens up the iPhone but cannot make it work, because the iPhone simply doesn’t work in South Africa. Five days after he receives the phone, the buyer emails you, demanding a refund.

Since it is now 27 days since the transaction, or 13 days past the return deadline, you do not respond to the email. The buyer opens up an official return investigation on eBay. A week later, eBay rules in your favor, stating that you are not obligated to provide a refund.

Now, without informing you, the buyer had shipped the iPhone back to you in the middle of the eBay investigation. Three weeks later, the iPhone arrives on your doorstep, a complete surprise for you. Five days later, the buyer emails you. He knows that eBay ruled in your favor, so instead of asking for the $800 back, he asks for the iPhone back. Since he voluntarily shipped you back the iPhone, it is legally yours.


1. You are not legally obligated to return $800 or the iPhone. However, are you morally obligated to do so?

2. Would you return the iPhone?

3. The shipping fee from USA to South Africa is $100. If you do feel obligated to return the iPhone, should you pay the $100 shipping fee or should you ask $100 from the buyer in South Africa to provide it?

4. If you choose not to return the $800 or the iPhone, then who is to blame for the buyer’s loss? Is it your fault or his own fault?

5. Instead of an $800 iPhone, what if the item cost $5 or $100,000? How would this affect your responses?

Situation 2: The Million Dollar Button

From this point on, all situations are strictly hypothetical.

You are in a room with a button. If you press the button, a random person in the world dies, but you gain one million dollars. Nobody else in the world knows about this room or the button, and nobody would know that you pressed the button.

This situation completely shocked many of us when it was first asked in the debate. Most people’s gut instinct was to say, “Of course not!” But is that actually what people would do? People might say “No” to maintain their reputation in a public setting, but deep down, would their answer be “Yes”?


1. Would you press the button?

2. Suppose you know 5 people who are homeless and jobless. If you press the button, you could give them $200,000 each. Would you press the button?

3. Instead of one random person in the world dying, one random convicted criminal in  the world dies. Would you press the button?

4. Instead of one million dollars, you gain one billion dollars. You could donate massive amounts to charities and fund scientific research to cure diseases. Would you press the button?

5. Instead of a random person dying, a random person goes into a coma for a month. Would you press the button?

6. If the answer to any of the questions was yes, then how many times would you press it?

Situation 3: The Doomsday Asteroid

In the future, there is a nuclear-powered manned spaceship in the outer solar system. Scientists detect an asteroid heading to Earth that has a 100% probability of impact. The asteroid is large enough to annihilate all of human civilization, kill billions, and set back humanity to the Stone Age. The only way to deflect the asteroid before it gets too close is to have the crew of the manned spaceship suicide the craft into the asteroid and blow it up with nuclear power. There is one person on the ship.


1. If you were the captain of the ship, would you be morally obligated to send the ship into the asteroid?

2. Suppose instead you are the director of NASA, back on Earth. The captain on board the ship refuses to impact the asteroid, even though it is the only hope to maintain current human civilization. You can issue an order to the ship itself that places the ship on computer autopilot, so that the captain cannot control the ship. Should you autopilot the ship into the asteroid?

3. Suppose that, at the time of the decision, there is only a 10% probability of the asteroid hitting Earth. However, we will not know for certain whether it will happen until it gets close enough to be unstoppable. Should the captain preemptively suicide him/her-self into the asteroid, before it gets close enough?

4. Suppose that the asteroid is large enough to annihilate not only human civilization, but also all life on Earth. Does this change the answer to any of the other questions?

5. Suppose that instead of there being 1 person on board, there are 1,000 people aboard that spaceship. Does this change any of your answers?

Situation 4: Alien Attackers

You are the president of the United States. An advanced alien race is about to attack the Earth, but before they do, they snatch you on board and give you two options. Option 1 is for you to kill half of humanity, and the aliens will leave Earth alone. Option 2 is to let the aliens destroy all of humanity. There is no hope of beating the alien technology.


1. Which option would you take?

2. Suppose Option 1 were, instead of you killing half of humanity, you let the aliens kill half of humanity. Does this change the answer?

3. Suppose Option 1 were, instead of half of humanity, 99% of humanity. Does this change the answer?

4. Suppose Option 1 were, instead of half of humanity, 1% of humanity. Does this change the answer?

5. Suppose human technology is actually far more advanced than it is now, and the best human military analysts claim there is a 5% chance to repel the alien attack if they attempt Option 2. Which option do you take?

Situation 5: The Million Dollar Button, Version 2

The following is the same as Situation 2: The Million Dollar Button. However, the variations are different.

“You are in a room with a button. If you press the button, a random person in the world dies, but you gain one million dollars. Nobody else in the world knows about this room or the button, and nobody would know that you pressed the button.”


1. Instead of a random human in the world dying, a random dog in the world dies. Would you press the button?

2. Instead of a random human, it is a random cat. Would you press the button?

3. Instead of a random human, it is a random fly. Would you press the button?

4. You are not the one pressing the button. Someone else is pressing the button, but you have a special button that electric shocks the other person, stopping them from hitting their button. Supposing you know the other person is just about to press the button, should you push your special shock button?

5. When you press the button, a random person in the world dies, but you gain one million dollars AND a random person in the world who has cancer is suddenly cured of cancer. Would you press the button?

6. If you said no in the previous case, what if 100 people were suddenly cured of cancer?


Some people had a view that it is always wrong to take away someone’s freedom. Such people of course said “No” in the button example, but surprisingly, they also said “No” in the spaceship example with the NASA director. They said that if the crew refused to crash into the asteroid, it is wrong for someone on Earth to force them into doing so, even if it is the only way to save humanity.

Some, especially religious people, were okay with pressing the button because they viewed humans as “inherently evil,” so they had no problem terminating a random human’s life. I personally found this view to be quite scary!

1. The iPhone Return

Everyone agreed that you are not morally obligated to return the $800. However, there was disagreement over whether to return the iPhone back to the buyer. Those claiming there is no moral obligation used the argument that the buyer should have been more careful with money, while those claiming there is a moral obligation used the argument of intention, that the buyer did not intend to just give back the iPhone for no refund.

2. The Million Dollar Button

Depending on the situation, most people found some case where it was justifiable to press the button. As said above, some religious people justified it by saying humans are “inherently evil.” Those of a utilitarian view justified it by saying the million dollars could go towards good purposes and advance the human race better than an average person could.

3. The Doomsday Asteroid

Most people agreed that in almost all cases, the ship should crash into the asteroid. To my surprise, there were people who said that even if the asteroid were guaranteed to wipe out all life on Earth if it hit, that if the captain refuses, NASA should not force the ship via autopilot to crash into the asteroid. I view this as a human imperative. Not only would we be ending our own species, but also millions of others on Earth. The survival of millions of species is far more important than the decision of one individual of one species.

4. Alien Attackers

There were people who  preferred letting all of humanity be killed by the aliens than to kill half of humanity. The decision for them rested in who was doing the killing. So when the question was rephrased to letting the aliens kill 50% of humanity vs letting the aliens kill 100% of humanity, the answer was unanimously let the aliens kill 50%. But when we ourselves were killing 50%, some people would rather let the aliens kill 100%.

5. The Million Dollar Button, Version 2

Most were more likely to press the button in the animal case than in the human case. However, there were some who would rather a human than a dog die. These were the same people who, in situation #2, claimed that it was justifiable to let a human die because humans are inherently evil. They claimed that dogs are not inherently evil, and so would not press the button in the case of a dog.

My Own Perspective

Overall I think the survival of the species is more important than the life of any one particular individual of the species. I may have hinted at this a few times in the article. But I will write a post specifically on my own views of morality later on.

What would you do in these situations?