Suppose you are a mad scientist performing experiments in your basement and you discover a drug that cures cancer. Do you have a moral obligation to share it with the rest of the world? What if you just sit on it and keep it to yourself, is that evil? Can the government intervene and force you to share your cure? What if you decide to sell it, but only at $1 million per dose?
This is one of my favorite hypothetical scenarios because it really brings out some deep philosophical questions about morality, about what makes a person good or evil, and about if and when it’s moral to forcibly override someone else’s free will to make them do the right thing.
Before I go into my answer to this question, I want to discuss how I perceive actions that people can take. An action can be good, bad, or neutral. A doctor saving someone’s life would be a good action, a murderer taking someone’s life would be a bad action, and someone witnessing a crime but doing nothing to help the victim would be a neutral (in)action. Instead of a simple duality between good and bad, I have added in a “neutral” category because there is a huge difference between pulling the trigger yourself and standing by and not stopping somebody else who pulls the trigger.
Many things that fall into the neutral category are inactions, rather than actions, and it can be very tempting to qualify these inactions as bad. For example, suppose I see somebody about to shoot someone else and I happen to have a baseball bat in my hand which I could use to bludgeon the killer before he pulls the trigger… but I don’t. Maybe I’m scared, or a wuss, or afraid I might miss and that he’ll turn his gun on me instead, but for whatever reason I don’t save that poor guy from being shot. A perspective one could take is that the victim would still be alive if only I had leapt into action, so therefore by my inaction I am directly responsible for the victim’s death, and therefore I’m a bad person. I disagree.
Imagine an alternate universe where I never existed. The victim is dead in this universe. The victim is also dead in the real universe. My existence, or lack thereof, is completely irrelevant to the survival of the victim. It’s hard to place blame upon me when my only crime is existing. Placing blame on the person who didn’t act is also a clever way of shifting the blame away from the person who did. Yes, maybe I could have saved the victim’s life, but so could the murderer if he had simply decided not to shoot. I happened to be nearby completely through luck and by no choice of my own, whereas the murderer was there and committing his crime on purpose.
There are also practical considerations when attempting to label inactions as either good or bad. I’m not a doctor. I could have been, but I went into math instead. As far as I know, I haven’t saved any lives. Does that make me a bad person? I clearly could have chosen a more noble profession. Or, what about doctors who choose to study an obscure disease like multiple sclerosis instead of a more common disease like cancer? Surely, these doctors could have chosen a specialty that would have allowed them to save even more lives than they are currently saving.
Here is an even more potent example. Do you have any money saved up for retirement? You could be spending this money on feeding Third World kids. Through your inaction, potentially hundreds of children are dying.
If you do not label inactions as neutral you run into the serious problem of free will. We each make choices about how to live our lives, and we almost always put our own lives ahead of other people’s. I frankly see nothing wrong with that, not because I don’t care about other people, but because I care very much about free will. We each have the right to decide how our lives unfold, so long as we don’t actively prohibit other people from doing the same.
If inaction is considered bad, who decides the right actions to take? The government? They would have to layout rules about which profession people go into, what they spend their retirement money on, who donates organs to whom, etc. In my opinion, this action of forcibly overriding free will leads to a greater injustice than simply leaving people alone to act (or not) as they see fit.
Okay, that was a kind of long-winded explanation of why inaction is morally neutral, but the idea is crucial to the original question about whether or not you must share a cure for cancer if you discover one. I can now answer the question with a NO.
While we are morally obligated to not perform bad actions, we are in no way obligated to perform good ones. If I invented a cure for cancer and then immediately destroyed it, no one would know. Heck, it may have happened already! Yes, not sharing a cure for cancer makes you a dick, but it doesn’t make you evil.
On a side note, it might seem that the sheer numbers we are talking about when it comes to cancer changes things, and that not acting to save one person’s life is totally different from not acting to save millions of people’s lives. Morally, I don’t think there’s a difference. You cannot place a value on a human life. If you could, where would you draw the line? At 100 lives? 1000?
I would like to end this post with a brief note about patent law and intellectual property. This hypothetical situation leads to the greatest argument against such things that I can imagine. If I invent a cure for cancer and then don’t share it, fine, the world is no different. But if I invent a cure for cancer and then don’t share it, and then patent it to make sure that no one else can do good with it, suddenly I have crossed the line. No longer am I simply not performing an action, now I am actively taking an action that is preventing other people from saving lives. Patenting a cancer drug is like committing genocide. If someone has a heart attack and I don’t perform CPR, fine, that’s morally neutral, but if I get in the way of another doctor who’s trying to perform CPR and prevent him from saving the guy’s life, I’ve crossed the line to murder.
I’m not a lawyer, so perhaps a lawyer or law student who reads this blog can share their opinion, but if patents work the way I think they do it seems to me like they are evil incarnate. How can it be morally justified for a corporation to have a monopoly over a drug that can literally mean the difference between life and death? I have no problem with pharmaceutical companies selling their drugs at exorbitant prices. I only have a problem if they step in and prevent some other entrepreneur from finding a better way of manufacturing the drugs that’s cheaper and more effective and saves more lives.
When I phrase this as a question about patent law and intellectual property, I almost invariably get one of the following two answers: (A) Obviously, we will make an exception to patent law in the event that somebody cures cancer, or (B) Your hypothetical situation is silly; of course someone who cures cancer will share that cure with the world. My response is that first of all you can’t just make exceptions to rules whenever they are inconvenient, and second of all I’m sure there are many people in the world crazy enough to cure cancer but not share it, so the situation isn’t quite as hypothetical as it first appears.