Inevitably, because of the way my mind works and because of the friends I choose, I will enter into the conversation of the importance/value/”currency” of life. The title’s question – would you sacrifice one life to save ten? – gets at the heart of the conflict between the purely utilitarian viewpoint that I tend to loathe because it cannot encompass my morality, and the more stringent and much harder for me to articulate “principle” system that I feel defines me.
In case it was not apparent, in such conversations, nearly everyone I know answers “usually, it depends on who they are, judging based on the “worth” of the one life compared to the ten, either subjectively to them or in some more general-to-humanity sense. I always answer “no.” In fact, the quantity and the quality of the lives is essentially irrelevant* to me — the principle by which I have come to define my thinking on this is sentient life is special: it cannot be compared in value to other things or even other sentient life. I’m not sure exactly why I think this is true – it is a combination of a feeling of uniqueness about self-aware organisms compared to the rest of stuff in the universe, and also the agency that I believe all sentient life possesses (definitionally) – the capacity for free will.
Kant expresses this in his Categorical Imperative by saying “you should not treat rational beings as merely a means to an end, but always as an end in and of themselves.” I pretty much agree with that sentiment. I do, however, understand that absolutes (even moral ones!) cannot be held in spite of practicality – they are ideals to strive for, but not always to live by.
Would I kill in self-defense, or to save someone I loved? Would I kill one individual to save my species? Probably. But this drives another principle, which I also believe quite strongly, the “no moral free lunch” principle: a person should be allowed to do something immoral, but they should also be responsible for the moral consequences of that action. I respect the fundamental freedom of choice – that a free-willed individual should be able to choose and not constrained unnecessarily by other individuals – but definitely think every choice has a potential (moral) cost associated with it.