While watching orange is the new black re-runs, a question was raised. So I wanted to raise it here, to get some different views on it.

Imagine that a runaway train is on track to kill five railroad workers. You’re standing next to a switch that can re-route the train to a different track, saving the lives of five people, but there’s a problem.

If you DO re-route the train, a single worker on the new route will be hit by the train.

So the question becomes: IS ONE DEATH BETTER THAN FIVE DEATHS? OR ARE THEY BOTH EQUALLY BAD?

And more importantly, are decisions (like whether or not to pull the switch) only morally right because of the positive outcome (saving five people) or should we take into account how we get to the outcome (murdering one person)?

If you believe in utilitarianism, then you’d answer no, it doesn’t matter how we get to the outcome. The greater good (living) was done for the greatest number (five people).

But a believer in deontologist principles would say that since killing is always wrong, it’s better to allow the train to run it’s course, rather than intentionally murder a person.

The bottom line: you can focus on the outcome of the circumstance (five people saved vs. only one dead) or the action it took to get there (murdering a person). Which do you believe is more important?




10 Comments

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  1. luftballooneyegouge 12 months ago

    Captain Kirk would jump on the train & stop it,…. reprogramming the no-win scenario.

    Since I can throw the train switch, I’m assuming I’m also a rail road worker, so I know these people, so which one contains people I like vs dislike is going to be very heavy in weighing my decision.

    To answer the basic question if I liked them all, I’d kill the one guy,… unless I’m in all 6 wills…

    Did I type just that out loud?

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  2. Jear77 12 months ago

    Let me respond by asking a slightly different question instead:
    If you had the cure to something that was affecting MILLIONS of people (or knew someone who did) but in order to get the cure, you would have to be killed (or allow the person you knew to be killed)… and the cure would revolutionize the world… would you allow it?

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    • Author
      fosheet 12 months ago

      @Jear77 this is interesting. It poses the same question, but in a way that places value on my life or the one I know versus strangers.

      I’m a bleeding heart, I would give my life to save others

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  3. Scarlett 12 months ago

    It is good you are examining this because you will probably have this come up again in your social work classes If you haven’t already.

    Do we have information on who the people are and what their lives are like? For example their families, how big the families etc?

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      fosheet 12 months ago

      @Scarlett for arguments sake, no only the situation given above. Otherwise the variables could be endless.

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  4. griz 12 months ago

    I would probably lean towards the Hobson’s Choice of the least suffering. Which with no extenuating circumstances would seem to be sacrificing the single person. And further, I would insist charges be laid against me for that death, open to the public and particularly the family of the person my actions killed.
    I would want there to be an official societal judgement and if it came to that, for everyone to see that there was a consequence to actions (or inactions??) ending a life, even if “there was no other choice”.

    To me the deontologist solution seems more just a clever way to avoid making a difficult choice.

    So here’s another question back.
    If you were that 1 person (say your foot was somehow wedged in the track), would you want 5 people to pay the price for you to live? Presuming there was some communication with the switchman, I would be shouting for them to send the train my way, absolve them of any wrongdoing against me or my kin, and hold out hope I would find some clever way to get off the track at the last minute — or sacrifice as little of myself as possible!

    While there could conceivably be a time and place for terminal Machiavellian action, I would personally have a very hard time carrying it out. I would be desperately looking for my own Kobayashi Maru.

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    • Author
      fosheet 12 months ago

      @griz if I were that one individual person, I would attempt, as you suggested, sacrificing as little of myself as possible, or allowing myself to die to help the greater good of the five.

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      • griz 12 months ago

        @fosheet
        A big part of that is because I’m as fully reconciled with Life — including death — as I could possibly be at this time and place. Sure, I would fight for life. Part of that is sheer brute instinct, but I also happen to think Life as I currently know it, is awesome. The promise of “something better”?

        Sure, I’m up for that; when I know the time is there. Fear won’t keep me from stepping forth boldly.

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