Theory Building Activities: Mountain Terrorist Exercise

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This exercise, based on Bernard Williams' "Jim and the Jungle" scenario, helps students see the way they use ethical theories in their everyday reasoning. Williams' scenario is constructed as a classical dilemma--a no win situation that offers two courses of action both of which are bad. While Williams' intention was to criticize deontological and utilitarian ethical approaches for undermining personal integrity, this reformulation of the scenario into that of the Mountain Terrorist Exercise provides a ready means of distinguishing the ethical approaches of virtue, deontology, and utilitarianism. Students discuss the exercise. The instructor then shows how the different positions set forth fall under certain ethical categories. This debriefing can then be followed by a formal presentation that sets forth these three ethical theories in terms of their similarities and their differences. This module is being developed as a part of an NSF-funded project, "Collaborative Development of Ethics Across the Curriculum Resources and Sharing of Best Practices," NSF SES 0551779.

Module Introduction

This module poses an ethical dilemma, that is, a forced choice between two bad alternatives. Your job is to read the scenario and choose between the two horns of the dilemma. You will make your choice and then justify it in the first activity. In the second activity, you will discuss your choice with others. Here, the objective is to reach consensus on a course of action or describe the point at which your group's progress toward consensus stopped. The Mountain Terrorist Exercise almost always generates lively discussion and helps us to reflect on of our moral beliefs. Don't expect to reach agreement with your fellow classmates quickly or effortlessly. (If you do, then your instructor will find ways of throwing a monkey wrench into the whole process.) What is more important here is that we learn how to state our positions clearly, how to listen to others, how to justify our positions, and how to assess the justifications offered by others. In other words, we will all have a chance to practice the virtue of reasonableness. And we will learn reasonableness not when it's easy (as it is when we agree) but when it becomes difficult (as it is when we disagree).

The second half of this module requires that you reflect carefully on your moral reasoning and that of your classmates. The Mountain Terrorist Exercise triggers the different moral schemas that make up our psychological capacity for moral judgment. Choosing one horn of the dilemma means that you tend to favor one kind of schema while choosing the other horn generally indicates that your favor another. The dominant moral theories that we will study this semester provide detailed articulations and justifications of these moral schemas. Reflecting on your choice, the reasons for your choice, and how your choice differs from that of your classmates will help you get started on the path of studying and effectively utilizing moral theory.

The following scenario comes originally from the philosopher, Bernard Williams. It is also presented in introductory ethics textbooks (such as Geoffrey Thomas’ An Introduction to Ethics). The first time this module’s author became aware of its use in the classroom was in a workshop on Agriculture Ethics led by Paul Thompson, then of Texas A&M University, in 1992.

Moral Theories Highlighted

  1. Utilitarianism: the moral value of an action lies in its consequences or results
  2. Deontology: the moral value of an action lies, not in its consequences, but in the formal characteristics of the action itself.
  3. Virtue Ethics: Actions sort themselves out into virtuous or vicious actions. Virtuous actions stem from a virtuous character while vicious actions stem from a vicious or morally flawed character. Who we are is reveals through what we do.

Mountain Terrorist Scenario

You are in a remote mountain village. A group of terrorists has lined up 20 people from the village; they plan on shooting them for collaborating with the enemy. Since you are not from the village, you will not be killed. Taking advantage of your position, you plead with the terrorists not to carry out their plan. Finally, you convince the leader that it is not necessary to kill all 20. He takes a gun, empties it of all its bullets except one, and then hands it to you. He has decided to kill only one villager to set an example to the rest. As an honored guest and outsider, you will decide who will be killed, and you will carry out the deed. The terrorists conclude with a warning; if you refuse to kill the villager, then they will revert back to the original plan of killing all 20. And if you try any “funny business,” they will kill the 20 villagers and then kill you. What should you do?

Your Options

  1. Take the gun, select a villager, and kill him or her.
  2. Refuse the terrorists' offer and walk away from the situation.

Taxonomy of Ethical Approaches

There are many ethical approaches that can be used in decision making. The Mountain Terrorist Exercise is based on an artificial scenario designed to separate these theoretical approaches along the lines of the different "horns" of a dilemma. Utilitarians tend to choose to shoot a villager "in order to save 19." In other words they focus their analysis on the consequences of an action alternative and choose the one that produces the least harm. Deontologists generally elect to walk away from the situation. This is because they judge an action on the basis of its formal characteristics. A deontologist might argue that killing the villager violates natural law or cannot be made into a law or rule that consistently applies to everybody. A deontologist might say something like, "What right do I have to take another person's life?" A virtue ethicists might try to imagine how a person with the virtue of courage or integrity would act in this situaiton. (Williams claims that choosing to kill the villager, a duty under utilitarianism, would undermine the integrity of a person who abhorred killing.)

Table Connecting Theory to Domain

  1. Row 1: Utilitarianism concerns itself with the domain of consequences which tells us that the moral value of an action is "colored" by its results. The harm/beneficence test, which asks us to choose the least harmful alternative, encapsulates or summarizes this theoretical approach. The basic principle of utilitarianism is the principle of utility: choose that action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Cost/benefits analysis, the Pareto criterion, the Kalder/Hicks criterion, risk/benefits analysis all represent different frameworks for balancing positive and negative consequences under utilitarianism or consequentialism.
  2. Row 2: Deontology helps us to identify and justify rights and their correlative duties The reversibility test summarizes deontology by asking the question, "Does your action still work if you switch (=reverse) roles with those on the receiving end? "Treat others always as ends, never merely as means," the Formula of End, represents deontology's basic principle. The rights that represent special cases of treating people as ends and not merely as means include (a) informed consent, (b) privacy, (c) due process, (d) property, (e) free speech, and (f) conscientious objection.
  3. Row 3: Virtue ethics turns away from the action and focuses on the agent, the person performing the action. The word, "Virtue," refers to different sets of skills and habits cultivated by agents. These skills and habits, consistently and widely performed, support, sustain, and advance different occupational, social, and professional practices. (See MacIntyre, After Virtue, and Solomon, Ethics and Excellence, for more on the relation of virtues to practices.) The public identification test summarizes this approach: an action is morally acceptable if it is one with which I would willingly be publicly associated given my moral convictions. Individual virtues that we will use this semester include integrity, justice, responsibility, reasonableness, honesty, trustworthiness, and loyalty.

Comments on the Relation Between Ethical Approaches

The Mountain Terrorist Exercise has, in the past, given students the erroneous idea that ethical approaches are necessarily opposed to one another. As one student put it, "If deontology tells us to walk away from the village, then utilitarianism must tell us to stay and kill a villager because deontology and utilitarianism, as different and opposed theories, always reach different and opposed conclusions on the actions they recommend." The Mountain Terrorist dilemma was specially constructed by Bernard Williams to produce a situation that offered only a limited number of alternatives. He then tied these alternatives to different ethical approaches to separate them precisely because in most real world situations they are not so readily distinguishable. Later this semester, we will turn from these philosophical puzzles to real world cases where ethical approaches function in a very different and mostly complimentary way. As we will see, ethical approaches, for the most part, converge on the same solutions. For this reason, this module concludes with 3 meta-tests. When approaches converge on a solution, this strengthens the solution's moral validity. When approaches diverge on a solution, this weakens their moral validity. A third meta-test tells us to avoid framing all ethical problems as dilemmas (=forced choices between undesirable alternatives) or what Carolyn Whitbeck calls "multiple-choice" problems. You will soon learn that effective moral problem solving requires moral imagination and moral creativity. We do not "find" solutions "out there" ready made but design them to harmonize and realize ethical and practical values.


  • Divergence Test: When two ethical approaches differ on a given solution, then that difference counts against the strength of the solution. Solutions on which ethical theories diverge must be revised towards convergence.
  • Convergence Test: Convergence represents a meta-test that attests to solution strength. Solutions on which different theoretical approaches converge are, by this fact, strengthened. Convergence demonstrates that a solution is strong, not just over one domain, but over multiple domains.
  • Avoid Framing a Problem as a Dilemma. A dilemma is a no-win situation that offers only two alternatives of action both of which are equally bad. (A trilemma offers three bad alternatives, etc.) Dilemmas are better dissolved than solved. Reframe the dilemma into something that admits of more than two no-win alternatives. Dilemma framing (framing a situation as an ethical dilemma) discourages us from designing creative solutions that integrate the conflicting values that the dilemma poses as incompatible.

Module Wrap-Up

  1. Reasonableness and the Mountain Terrorist Exercise.
  2. Recognizing that we are already making ethical arguments.
  3. Results from Muddy Point Exercises
  4. Congratulations on completing your first ethics module! You have begun recognizing and practicing skills that will help you to tackle real life ethical problems. (Notice that we are going to work with "problems" not "dilemmas".) We will now turn, in the next module, to look at those who managed to do good in the face of difficulty. Studying moral exemplars will provide the necessary corrective to the "no-win" Mountain Terrorist Exercise.

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Derived from a module on Connexions

William J. Frey, "Theory Building Activities: Mountain Terrorist Exercise." Connexions, 2007/08/21,
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