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SavoirFaire's avatar

Philosophical question: who is guilty in this situation (see details)?

Asked by SavoirFaire (27252points) August 10th, 2014

Inspired by this question.

Here is a classic problem in philosophy and law used to challenge students. It concerns causation, preemption, and overdetermination. I am interested in your thoughts on it:

Everybody in the French Foreign Legion outpost hates Fred and wants him dead. During the night before Fred’s trek across the desert, Tom poisons the water in his canteen. Then, Dick, not knowing of Tom’s intervention, pours out the (poisoned) water and replaces it with sand. Finally, Harry comes along and pokes holes in the canteen, so that the “water” will slowly run out. Later, Fred awakens and sets out on his trek, provisioned with his canteen. Too late he finds his canteen is nearly empty, but besides, what remains is sand, not water, not even poisoned water. Fred dies of thirst.

Who caused his death?

There are many variations of this problem, some of which are more elaborate than others. The version above comes from the paper “Who’s Afraid of Determinism?” by Christopher Taylor and Daniel Dennett, which can be found here.

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28 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

He died of thirst, not poisoning, so Tom is not guilty. He just wanted Fred dead, but was ineffective.

Fred found the canteen near empty and with only sand, jointly caused by the actions of Dick and Harry. So Dick and Harry both caused Fred’s dying of thirst.

Of course, he wouldn’t have died of thirst if a) he had checked his canteen before walking out the gate, and b) if he had not gone out into the desert.

dappled_leaves's avatar

Dick caused his death. Fred did not die of poisoning, so Tom is in the clear. Harry poked holes in a canteen full of sand, so at best, he prevented Fred from drinking sand.

However, Dick is the guilty of ensuring that there was no water in Fred’s canteen, and this is what caused his death. Dick’s was the only successful murder attempt. The others might be convicted of attempted murder.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Fred is. The dumbass went into a rough situation without checking his provisions. You go into danger only when you’re sure of what you’re carrying.

ragingloli's avatar

They are all guilty of attempted murder, at least, but the one guilty of murder would be dick.

Response moderated
hominid's avatar

Love questions like this. I’m struggling with this, though. Also, @ragingloli and @dxs – I don’t think this is a legal question. “Who caused his death.” is the question, and we’re addressing causality, although I could be wrong.

I have typed an answer and deleted it many times now. I don’t have one. What if person A poisons person B, but before the poison’s effects are felt, person C accidentally runs over B with a car? Can we say that C’s actions (hitting with car) is the cause of B’s death? I think we can. We don’t know for sure that the poison would have been successful. But what if we knew that the amount of poison was guaranteed to have killed B? Do we need a single cause? Can there be two causes?

In the canteen scenario, it seems that it’s painted in a way in which we know that any of those attempts would have killed Fred. But interventions take place that merely replace the means of killing him. Fred would be dead if Dick and Tom had forgotten to sabotage the canteen. We have 3 potential causes, yet he died of thirst. I’ll assume we’re not to be left wondering what would have happened if the sand had been the last remaining drops of water, right? If this experiment had left the door open to a possibility that one method of killing Fred would have been unsuccessful, it wouldn’t be as useful.

What’s my answer? I don’t know.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@hominid Correct. We are to assume that the individual actions of Tom, Dick, and Harry would have each been enough to bring about Fred’s death on their own. This is the problem of overdetermination.

And my apologies, but I purposely chose a more complicated version of the problem for us to think about. There are versions that I find much more straightforward, but where’s the fun in that?

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

They all would have effectively killed him, does the order really matter? All are equally guilty here. In the end Fred should have checked his canteen before he left. The only thing he may not have noticed would have been the poison. Hie did die of thirst though, not poisoning. In the end it’s a total wash IMO

stanleybmanly's avatar

Fred died from thirst. He didn’t die from poisoned water, and would be just as dead with a canteen full of sand. So Dick is the killer. But here’s a question. At the outset of his trek, wouldn’t Fred have noticed from its weight that his canteen was empty? It’s only speculation of course, but the addition of the sand makes for an unwitting accomplice. The puncturing of the canteen , on the other hand, might have saved Fred’s life had he been more observant and noticed the leaking sand.

Coloma's avatar

Fred is responsible, for not properly checking his canteen before he trekked off into the Sahara. Personal responsibility, regardless of the tampering efforts of Tom, Dick & Harry.
Jeez Fred, what kind of moron are you? lol

kritiper's avatar

Fred is responsible for not checking his canteen before setting out. The military is very strict about this!

Response moderated (Unhelpful)
Brian1946's avatar

Ultimately Fred is, but not necessarily because he didn’t check his canteen the morning of his trek.

I think most people could only walk about a half mile or so through the desert before becoming thirsty.

At this point, Fred would have noticed that he had no water. Most rational people would then go back to the outpost to get water, so WTF was going on with Fred that being less than a mile from the outpost caused him to die of thirst?

Did he think that desert was the French word for water? Did he trek on thinking that eventually one of the numerous heat mirages that he saw would actually be water? I could go on, but in anticipation of popular requests, I won’t.

Response moderated (Unhelpful)
Dutchess_III's avatar

They all are. As to “who” caused his death, that would be what ever force created us with a need for water to live.

CWOTUS's avatar

Fred’s commanding officer has to shoulder some of the secondary responsibility for his death, if not “the blame” and the primary responsibility.

In the first place, he has to be one of the “everybody” (if the word means what it commonly means), and a CO cannot command effectively if he “hates” someone in his unit. If Fred was guilty of some kind of crime to merit that kind of disapprobation by his superior, then his mere presence was damaging the entire unit’s morale – as evidenced by the actions of three people who intentionally sought to murder a colleague, whether or not any of them was ultimately successful. If Fred wasn’t actually a criminal or traitor, then his commander should have had no reason to hate him and assign him to a suicide mission. So that’s one thing.

Secondly, he allowed this kind of grievance among supposed comrades to fester to the point where the intent to kill was acted upon, three times, by individuals unaware of the others’ actions. It’s not uncommon for men in stressful situations to dislike each other and to an extent to perhaps not even trust one another fully. It is decidedly uncommon for one of them to attempt to murder another willfully, much less for three to attempt it (and not even in collusion).

Third, he sent Fred into the desert unprepared and with no backup for one of the most vital substances – perhaps after oxygen “the” most vital substance – that a human can lack.

Five people in this scenario share varying degrees of culpability, and we haven’t even looked at or heard from any of the others who constitute “everybody”.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Harry is the guilty one.

Bill1939's avatar

Maybe Fred, knowing how much he is hated, decided to commit suicide. He never checked his canteen because he was never going to use it.

tinyfaery's avatar

I always hated these questions in my philosophy classes. Most students end up saying that Fred is the culpable party without being guilty, from a legal standpoint. But the logical conclusion to that line of thinking makes victims of most crimes culpable for what occurred. Not guilty, but culpable.

All 3 men are guilty under some law, but they are not culpable for the incident itself, unless you can prove conspiracy.

Why I dropped philosophy as a major 3 years in. Round and round and round…

gailcalled's avatar

^^^ What’s the philosophical difference between culpable and guilty? I always took them for synonyms.

longgone's avatar

I seem to recall there is something called “interrupted causation” – because Dick (albeit unwittingly) sabotaged Tom’s plan, the latter can’t be held responsible…right?


Pazza's avatar

My opinion.

I love judge judy so.

But for the fact that dick replaced the poison with sand tom would have killed him. So he’s guilty of murder.

dick had no idea about the poison and thus is guilty of murder as had the poison not been present, there would still be no water.

And harry is also guilty of murder for the same reason.

Added to that is the fact that for some reason they’ve all admitted they wanted him dead.

And lastly Fred Is a tit for not checking his can before he left!

Had he checked it and not died means they’d all be equally guilty of attempted murder.

Pazza's avatar

As for who actually caused his death.


As a. There was no longer any poison and b. For it to be harry, we would have to assume fred would not have checked his can before he left.

tinyfaery's avatar

Guilty in the legal definition.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

So what is the academic answer to this koan?

tinyfaery's avatar

There is no answer. It is a logic game.

Bill1939's avatar

Prosecute all three on the charge of attempting to commit murder, and any other charges that can be applied, then let the juries in a court of law decide whether any, all or none are guilty. If they have enough money, their attorneys will likely get them acquitted.

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