Friday’s Thought Experiment

Consider your gut reactions to the two following scenarios:

1st Scenario

There is a set of tracks which five repairmen are working on.  Around a bend there is an oncoming train. From your vantage point in a tower above the track you can see the train, but the five workers can’t (privilege of management). In a few seconds the train will hit and kill them all.  You can’t shout to them or warn them in any way because of the ear protectors they are wearing and their dedication to the task at hand that keeps them looking away from you.

Suddenly to realize that there is a lever nearby that you can pull that will divert the train onto some side tracks.  However, there is one repair man working on that track.  If the lever is pulled, the train will kill him.

Do you do nothing and allow five men to die, or do you pull the lever and cause the death of one man?

2nd Scenario

Same track. Same five men. Only this time, there is no lever.  However, there is a particularly large man at the edge of the tower, he’s the guy who would have been working alone on the other track.  If he were to fall, and hit the tracks below, it would stop the train.  He’s a very large man.  All you have to do is. . . give him a little push.

Do you do nothing and allow five men to die, or do you push the man and cause his death?

Assuming your gut answers were different . . . why?
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23 Comments

Filed under Thought experiment

23 responses to “Friday’s Thought Experiment

  1. Hey did you know Scenario #1 is a Christian analogy – the watcher in the tower does pull the lever – knowing that the one repair man is his son.

    It goes something like that anyway. Actually it’s a drawbridge and the son is caught in the gears but if he doesn’t lower it everyone on the train will die. Similar choice.

  2. The only thing I can think is that there should be a safe system of work procedure in place to ensure that this sort of situation doesn’t happen. (Sorry I’ve got too much Health and Safety training)

  3. Dom

    I’d not do anything. There is going to be one hell of an inquiry into the disaster no matter how many people are killed covering things like ‘why weren’t the spotters warning the crews?’, ‘why didn’t the tracks have the explosive warning devises on them?’ and ‘why was the train going at a speed that it couldn’t stop in time in a area where engineering works were going on?’, there is no way I’d want to add ‘why were you pulling levers willy nilly?’ to the list. Ditto with the second scenario, I don’t want questions like ‘why was an IT person from an investment bank on railway property?’ being asked. Besides, the scenario is too far fetched. Who the hell is going to believe that you get trains on tracks in the UK?

  4. Deborah

    1st scenario – God did pull the lever and His son did die…..and saved many people.
    2nd scenario – The Father never would have pushed Him, His Son willingly jumped onto that track….

  5. Helen, I really didn’t know that. I thought it was just a thought experiment on morality. Now that you mention it I can see the religious analogy. I thought I was writing something that wasn’t religious as well. Drat!

    cha0tic, well H&S is important but in this situation all steps were clearly ignored. They’ll be an inquiry.

    Dom, you always make me laugh even when I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not. Good point about the trains though.

    Deb, as I said to Helen I didn’t even think it was a religious analogy. However, as you mention it, couldn’t divine power just turn the train into butterflies or something and circumvent the need for a sacrifice entirely?

  6. hf wrote: Helen, I really didn’t know that. I thought it was just a thought experiment on morality. Now that you mention it I can see the religious analogy. I thought I was writing something that wasn’t religious as well. Drat!

    Didn’t you realize everything is religious in one way or another? 😉

    However, as you mention it, couldn’t divine power just turn the train into butterflies or something and circumvent the need for a sacrifice entirely?

    Evidently not or that would be how the analogy went 🙂

  7. Everything in life worth while requires sacrifice of some sort, on some level. Why would eternity with a loving God be any different, especially when He was the one doing it? As hard as you try not to Hov, you’re still working for the “other side”…I think it’s great! 🙂

  8. In the first scenario my guess is I would not hesitate to sacrifice one life to save many. I can’t tell you how badly I would afterwards but the decision to me is a very clear one

    In the second scenario I would like to believe I would jump on the tracks myself.

    GG, if did believe in heaven then I might not do anything. The good guys who die would get to join God. The bad guys who die get what they deserve. 🙂

  9. Ed, just becaue we’re sure of our destination does not mean we stand back and watch others suffer! 🙂 There is no greater love for that of a fellow man than one who would lay his life down for a friend…my parphrase…but it works. 😉

  10. tam

    “In the second scenario I would like to believe I would jump on the tracks myself.”

    Ed, this is just one of the reasons I have come to respect you so greatly!!

  11. ash

    yay! the trolley problem!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

    gotta ask, is it just me that got to the end of that article and thought, ‘sod it, kill ’em all’ ?

  12. “Didn’t you realize everything is religious in one way or another?” Eek! I hope not.

    Deb, you said that everything in life requires sacrifice of some sort but I think that you’re redefining sacrifice. Obviously when you make a decision you lose the option of going back and making the decision not made but this isn’t a sacrifice. You literally cannot eat your cake and have it. This isn’t sacrifice.

    “As hard as you try not to Hov, you’re still working for the “other side”…I think it’s great!” I don’t believe in sides in a religious context. Firstly, there are more than two teams and no-one ever gets to see the captains play. Secondly, defining morality as an us or them competition immediately discounts and discourages cooperation. I’m not playing by those rules.

    I think I’ve wella dn truly overworked that analogy.

    Ed, do you have sufficient mass to stop the train? Wouldn’t it be a terrible waste if you sacrifficed yourself and didn’t stop the train?

    Ash, the trolley problem goes a bit further but it is, essentially, the same thing. I like the idea off a surgeon sacrificing a healthy person to save five sick people. It is morally similar to the train problem but requires direct action.

  13. Hover, my guess is that I would try to jump on the tracks and stop the train myself before I would kill soneone else. I also think there is a better than 50% chance that the big guy would jump down with me.

  14. I think I’d be really Buddhist about it, my days of taking human life are over. What will be will be.

  15. Gah, I love and yet at the same time hate these analogies that you give us.

    Scenario 1 I wonder if by pulling the lever, whether you’d be found guilty of murder in court? I doubt that the argument of killing one to save five would carry in any court. However from a moral point of view, you should do something to minimise loss of life if you are in a position to do so, so I’d likely pull the lever and take my chances that a) I’d have a darn good QC in court and b) karma would see me okay. At the end of the day, I’d say you are better doing something than nothing.

    Scenario 2 In my eyes pushing this man is the same as pulling a lever, both require an action of sorts to prevent greater casualties. At least by pushing the guy, you could apologise and justify your actions and reasoning therefore possibly clearing your conscience slightly.

    Both scenarios mean that you will deliberately harm someone and in my opinion you’d have to shoulder the blame for both rather than seek to lay blame at the train driver / circumstances.

  16. Ed, better than 50% eh? Can I move to where you live?

    Brennig, to be honest I’d probably not intervene either. No action as opposed to bad action is somehow better even though the result is that more people die (in all likelihood).

    Perp, in scenario 1 I would expect a jury to acquit you given the circumstances but not for scenario 2. My justification is that the first gives the one guy a chance of getting away but the second one doesn’t. Most people would see it that way so I’m guessing a jury would.

    Just to let you know that all of my kids said that they would kill the one guy to save five others no matter the circumstances. They scare me sometimes.

  17. Hov, ur right…I shouldn’t say sides…sorry…I see God in everything, you see Him in nothing…don’t know what you would call that… hmmmm

    I don’t agree with there not being sacrifice…In most situations, agreed not all, if you put someone or something else before yourself, you are making a sacrifice.

  18. Hover, to avoided a disaster, where hundreds of people are likely to die I think at least 1 out of every 2 people would be willing to sacrifice their life.

    If we are talking about trying to save just one ot two lives the odds would probably drop off dramatically to around 10%, maybe less.

  19. Deb, I see your point about sacrifice but I do believe that it’s a matter of perspective. If I donate (sacrifice) time and effort in helping another person I don’t necessarily view that as sacrifice. Especially not if I gain something from the aid I offer. This could be as simple as personal enjoyment or pride in a job well done.

    Ed, I think you’re very optimistic but I’m also glad that we don’t have to put it to the test. I also think it would be dependent on the relationship between the sacrifice and the victims. Strangers would be less attractive for personal sacrifice but family members would be more so.

  20. I understand what you’re saying…in referring to your stories above, I feel that giving your life for another is indeed a sacrifice….stuborn thing ain’t I??? 😉

  21. Ha ha ha Deb. You’ve got me there. Jumping in front of a train to save someone else is indeed a sacrifice. I can’t view it any other way although my father would say it was stupid.

  22. Stephan

    Has somebody been listening to RadioLab? (http://www.radiolab.org). If not, I suggest you download their podcast from last year on morality. They ask these questions and do brain scans of people while they answer. Very interesting stuff.

    Like most people, I would pull the lever, but I wouldn’t push the guy. At least, that’s what I think I would do.

    According to RadioLab, there are two different parts of your brain at work here. The first question accesses a rather primitive part of your brain and takes very little effort to decide (a real “no-brainer”). The second question accesses a more complex part of your brain and causes conflict. That conflict usually results in no action being taken.

  23. No right answer here, eh? The good of the many outweighing the good of the one? (That’s Mr. Spock, right?)

    Change the scenario. Five men on one track, a little girl wandering on to the other. Do you still throw the switch? Do we see the life of the young and innocent more as somehow having more value?

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