Clang, clang, clang went the trolley

In the research that I’m doing for a book on reason in science and religion, I’ve been reminded of a thought experiment in ethics designed to test our moral reasoning. The situation is as follows: Imagine that you are standing next to a railroad and you see a trolley out of control coming down the track. Farther down the line, there is a junction. If left to itself, the trolley will hit five persons on the track, whereas if you throw a switch, the trolley will be diverted onto a path that will kill only one. After contemplating that, you are then presented with a refinement, placing you on a bridge above the track and standing next to a fat man. The trolley is still out of control, but now the only way to stop it is to drop a body in the path, and you’re stated as being too light, but the fat man will have sufficient mass to accomplish the job of saving the five others if you push him off the bridge.

Is it morally correct to kill one to save five in the scenario described? That question has more than one level. Joshua D. Greene, a neuroscientist at Harvard University, has used this thought experiment to test the way that our brains process moral questions, finding that flipping a switch is dealt with in rational terms, while having to push another person is judged emotionally, indicating a difference in how we treat things seen as personal or impersonal. This speaks to the origins of morality by looking at the reactions and brain architecture that we share with other species, including our closest relatives among the primates, and the parts that are unique to us.

In this respect, the thought experiment is interesting, but what can we say about the moral question itself? Here things are messy and murky.

For one thing, I find that hypothetical scenarios like this too easily gloss over the practical considerations. In the case of the switch, the assumption is being made that the person having to make the decision will be able to figure out how the equipment operates. That may sound like a quibble, but if you’re not familiar with the controls of a railroad, you might have a moment of pause in working out what to do with the switch once you’ve resolved the moral quandary.

And more than that, if the person on the scene concludes that sacrificing one to save five is appropriate, how much weight would be required to stop or at least divert a runaway trolley? Would a two-hundred pound man lack sufficient mass, while a three-hundred pounder would get the job done? If so, what about someone who weighs two hundred fifty pounds? The calculation of the physics involved would take more time for most of us than we’d have to save the five lives.

Yes, I was the kid who annoyed everyone by asking about the details of things that I was supposed to take for granted. That’s one of the reasons that I’m now writing a book that’s skeptical of many religious claims. But there are problems with the scenario even if we accept the terms as presented.

So far as I understand the law, I have to point out that if I push one person onto the tracks, resulting in that person’s death, there will be two persons whose lives are over — the man I push and my own. Pushing someone to his death as a deliberate act is murder. I keep myself informed on the law dealing with the use of lethal force, since I support gun rights and legally carry handguns, and such force is only permitted to stop an attack. If I fire rounds during a violent encounter and hit an innocent bystander, unlike what happens many times to police officers, I’ll be in trouble. Chucking a man who didn’t set the trolley on its wild ride into the path is not accepted by the law, and so the moral question has to address the self-sacrifice that would result.

And then there’s the matter of the moral quality of the persons involved. What if the fat man on the bridge beside me is on the verge of curing cancer? What if the five on the tracks are Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Mussolini? Those are extreme cases, but what if the man is just an ordinarily decent fellow, while the five are common criminals? This is not to suggest that we should actively seek the deaths of those five, but if we have to make a choice, should that matter in the calculation of one against five?

All of this sounds like something that is only in the realm of the imaginary. However, there are real-world applications. Instead of a man on a bridge over a railroad, consider a healthy person with organs and tissues that could save multiple lives. If we decide that pushing one man to death to save five is morally acceptable, how far are we from deciding that using one person for parts to provide life to many is as well? Does that sound unrealistic? Organ selling and forced “donations” are actual crimes.

Another example of this is the subject of what gets called collateral damage. The United States drops a lot of bombs in a lot of places, claiming that bad people are the targets. But many who are innocent or at least not involved in the actions of those bad guys also get killed. The idea of killing one or more than one to save others is not merely the subject of a philosophy seminar.

As a matter of principle, I am loathe to accept the conclusion that sacrificing an innocent person is acceptable, so long as we save enough other lives. There may be times when this is the right choice, but standing in the vicinity of a railway isn’t one of them. Too many questions would have to be answered before the moral quality of such an action could be declared, and by the time I got those answers, the trolley would already have done its damage.

The book that I mentioned in this article will be finished sometime in the — I hope — not too distant future. For more of my completed writing, go here.


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(((Greg Camp)))

Gee, Camp, what were you thinking? Supports gay rights, #2a, #1a, science, and other seemingly incongruous things. Books available on Amazon.