The Trolley Problem :To save five lives would you switch the trolley’s tracks? would you push someone off a bridge?

One fine summer day on Cape Cod two bright young philosophy students were walking along Paine’s Creek beach, overlooking the Cape Cod Bay.  The sun was bright, there were a few clouds in the sky, just enough to make it interesting, and the tide was out, so you could walk for miles on the sandbar. It was a perfect day. Pat turned to Jay as asked,   “If you were in San Francisco, and you saw a runaway trolley racing down the tracks toward five people who would surely be killed if it continues on its present course. You can save these five people by diverting the trolley onto a different set of tracks where one person will be in the path of the trolley. If you do this, that one person will be killed. Is it morally permissible to turn the trolley onto the new track, so that the lives of the five people will be saved, but the life of the one person will be sacrificed?”

 Jay continues to walk, watching the crabs burrow into the sand as they walk. Thinking for a bit, Jay says, “yes, I believe it would be alright to sacrifice one to save five.”

 Pat and Jay continue to walk. Pat then asks Jay, “Well, now, suppose there is a different trolley. This one is still headed for five people. There is no alternate track to divert this trolley on, but you are standing next to a very large man on a footbridge that bridges the track. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge into the path of the trolley. Is it morally permissible to push the man onto the track in front of the trolley?

 Pat and Jay continue to walk along the beach as Jay thinks. Jay smiles and looks at Pat, “You would think so, wouldn’t you. In both cases it is one person to save five. But, morality is not math. I can be utilitarian if I am pulling a switch, but pushing someone engages my emotions on a whole other level. Pushing someone is much more personal. So, no, it seems not morally OK to push.”

 Jay then says, “Here’s one for you.  You are a relieve worker in Afghanistan, and you are helping to smuggle 48 women, children and babies out a prison where they had been held hostage for months. You have gotten information that they are all going to be executed within the next few days so it is imperative that you get them out as soon as possible. You plan the escape, and all of you are on the road, just a few more miles from freedom. It is night, you have just set up camp for the night, everyone is well hidden and you can hear soldiers on the road searching for you. You know they cannot see you so if everyone keeps quiet all will be all right, and then a baby begins to cry, to cry loudly, persistently and relentlessly. The only way to silence the baby is to cover its mouth, but if you do that the baby will be smothered to death. But, if you do not, you and the other 47 women and children you are helping to escape will be killed.  What would you do? Why?”

 So, my dear reader friends, what would you do?  Who gets justice here the five or the one? The infant or the 47? Whose human rights, whose dignity will you respect?

 If you need to find an answer watch the MASH season finale, rent the movie Sophie’s Choice, read Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, or google Joshua D. Greene. Sometimes there just isn’t an easy answer.