Since you’re all here greedily eyeing my words of opinionation, and since I’ve also shared a most intimate picture of myself in a leisure blazer with you, I think it would only be polite for you to share a little something about yourself in return. Worry not! I’m not about to ask you to sign away your privacy by making you blindly agree to one of those magnificent works of prevarication called “privacy policies.” Nor am I, as so many corporations seem to be, remotely interested in what your search history or smart phones’ location history could tell me about you. I’d like to really get to know you. I’d like to know when you would, or wouldn’t, be comfortable killing another person.
Sociopaths be still! Before you eagerly respond with the gory fascinations and preoccupations that plague your twisted minds, let me be clear. I’d like to know if, under the set of circumstances below, you would or would not be comfortable with killing one individual in order to save multiple others.
Before I begin I must first implore you to ignore any perceived implausibility in the situations that I’m about to describe to you. What is important is not whether these precise situations may ever arise or if there may be any way to escape the difficult situation they describe. What is important is what your response would be to the theoretical set of circumstances below. You may not deviate from the two options that are provided. I guess you could say that you’re not sure what you would do, but that would be boring. With that out of the way I would like to introduce what I’m calling the train game (because it sounds better than the trolley problem), a classic question straight from moral philosophy:
You are standing alone alongside a railroad track. A train has just turned the bend and is heading your way. As you glance further down the tracks, you notice that a team of railroad workers is diligently working on the tracks at a point where they span a vast canyon by way of a very narrow bridge. The train is heading straight for them and will not stop. They will not notice before it is too late. They are too fare away to call out to. You realize that there’s nothing you can do to save them. Then, you notice that not ten yards from where you stand lies a railroad switch. If you flip the switch, the train will be diverted onto a separate set of tracks. Just as you are about to pull the switch you perceive a solitary lazy worker taking an afternoon nap on this second set of tracks, and you realize that if you pull the switch, napping will become a permanent condition for this tired worker. So you have a choice. Pull the switch, save many, kill one vs. Do nothing, allow many to die. What do you do?
Answer that, and then consider the following:
Imagine this time that you are above the train tracks on a pedestrian bridge, and that there is an extraordinarily fat gentlemen standing next to you. Perhaps he’s taking a picture of the landscape as the train passes through. As before, you notice that the train is headed straight for a team of railroad workers who will remain oblivious until it is too late. This time however, there is no switch and you understand that the only way to stop the train in time is to employ the fat man in the role of human emergency brake by pushing him over the rail of your pedestrian bridge and onto the tracks. Perhaps you are quite the physics whiz, and can quickly calculate that the fat man would provide precisely the right amount of resistance that will allow the train to stop before hitting the workers. Here’s your choice this time: Push the fat man, save many, kill one vs. do nothing, and allow many to die.
Well, what will it be? How many lives will the fate train claim on your watch? Will it be one, or will it be many? Do you have different answers for the two situations? If so, why? If we’re to be friends at all then I’d very much like to know…. Perhaps you will motivate me to lose some weight, or perhaps I will be liberated to add fold upon fold without fear of someday being taken advantage of for my epic train-stopping mass. Comment below to let me know what you would do. If enough of you contribute, I’ll revisit this topic later and discuss what some leading moralists and neuro-people have to say about what goes into our considerations when answering these questions.