Tuesday, April 20, 2010

To turn or not to turn

There is a very famous conundrum in the teaching of ethics. Suppose the driver of an out-of-control trolley has a choice between smashing into five workers on the track, killing them all, or can turn off onto a side rail and kill only one worker. Most people would say he should turn. But what if you and others are standing on bridge above the track, and some fat guy is leaning over the rail, easy to push off. And if you push him off, sending him to his death, his body will stop the trolley, saving the lives of all six people on the track. Once again, the death of one person saves many others. But most of us would say, no, this isn't moral. (The idea is to show the difference between a "utilitarian" ethics (the best for the most) and a categorical ethics (wrong is wrong, period.)

Or take the case of four shipwrecked souls (another famous case). They are in a lifeboat, starving after 19 days. One, an orphan cabin boy, is near death. The others, with family back home, decide the boy must die so that the three might eat his flesh and perhaps survive. Would it have made a difference if the boy had willingly entered into a life-or-death lottery? If he had volunteered for death? Or was it just murder?

Such are the questions raised by a cool PBS series I'm watching called: "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?"

I love such questions. I'd like to ask whether any right-wing nuts had thought through such things. (I'd also ask the same question of left-wing nuts, if there were any left.)

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