Dec 24, 2010

My Take on The Run-Away Train Dilemma

Me thinking about run-away trains
In response to my own post, here

To begin with, I realize that in pondering this question, we are merely thinking hypothetically, and our answers bear only little weight in reality.

The moral thing to do, in my mind, is to pull the lever and push the man.  I don't know if I could actually push the man when the time for action came, but I think it would be the right choice.  Many argue that the weight of the one man's life would press heavily on their conscience if they knew they had caused his death, but I say that if I didn't pull the lever then the lives of the ten would weigh more heavily on me.  It is true that you did not put yourself in this situation, however, I argue that since you are in the situation, you are endowed with a responsibility to make a decision, and thus not pulling the lever, and not pushing the man would become murder of omission.  From a utilitarian perspective, my choice is correct, but there are many who would argue against it.  From a Taoist perspective, for example, we just need to let things happen, and not mess with the natural way.  I actually disagree with this because I feel that we should be actively, not passively pursuing the greater good.  From a Mormon statement of faith, someone argued that death is not the end, so allowing the ten to die would be better than having the murder of one on your hands.  I would agree from a statement of faith that death is not the end and that killing is an evil and terrible thing.  However, I would argue against this perspective because I feel that I would have the murder of ten (and thus the greater sin) on my hands by not acting.  From yet another interesting perspective I heard, the directness of the action determines morality.  The person who presented this perspective said that it was ethical to pull the lever but not push the man because they would feel better about pulling the lever than pushing the man.  I agree that these two actions would feel different, however, I feel it would be selfish to change your opinion of morality based on this feeling.  The person who argued this perspective also said that by pulling the lever, they were only acting on the train, and thus the degree of murder was somehow lessened.  To this I say that when you flip the switch on an electric chair, you are only electrocuting a chair which then acts on a living human being, or by pulling the rope to drop the guillotine, you are only acting on a rope, which in turn acts on a giant blade, causing it to fall and sever a head.  This method of execution is removed by at least two degrees, but does that make it ethical?  As you can see, this argument amounts only to ridiculousness in my mind.  I argue that the moral thing to do in this situation is to end the least people's lives no matter how you have to do it.  However, this does not necessarily mean I would be able to push the man onto the tracks.  But beyond this, and forgoing all perspectives and reasoning concerning the question, I would say that if you are in this situation and you try to the best of your ability and knowledge to do the right thing, acting without selfishness or malice toward any, you have not committed any wrong.


  1. I agree with you.
    You are an excellent clarifier.
    I have one more less significant clarification.
    Because thought and feeling are both important in decision making, and both have strengths and weaknesses, it's important not to downplay one or the other. About half of us have a tendency to rely more on our feelings. Logically, feelings aren't relevant when it comes to saving lives. Emotionally, it wouldn't feel immediately moral to directly kill someone, but it would feel less immediately immoral to indirectly kill. As you wisely stated, "if you are in this situation and you try to the best of your ability and knowledge to do the right thing, acting without selfishness or malice toward any, you have not committed any wrong." Even, perhaps, if this decision of "right" is dominated by feeling.
    Uh.. I hope people don't find this clarification compulsion annoying... It's my weird idea of fun.

  2. Thank you Guesser, for the compliment and the additional clarification. I should have made it clear at the beginning of my post that I am a primarily logical, as opposed to emotional, decision maker. I feel that this approach makes it a bit easier for me personally to see clearly in difficult situations such as the one outlined. I also agree with you that you can make the correct decision even if that decision is based on feeling rather than thought. This view of mine comes partially from a religious perspective that tells me that everyone is endowed with a conscience and inner light that can aid in decision making when decisions are difficult to make. I'm glad that you clarified, and don't find it in the least bit annoying.

  3. That's a fascinating argument. I admit, it has been haunting me a little since you presented the scenario originally. I think that your final sentence, "I would say that if you are in this situation and you try to the best of your ability and knowledge to do the right thing, acting without selfishness or malice toward any, you have not committed any wrong," reveals more about you and your beliefs than anything else you argued. So does this mean that, in general, you feel like you are in a situation of bad vs worse, choosing "bad" can be justified as being a good decision? Or are you merely pointing out that the decision is not necessarily bad? And where to draw the line between what's good and bad and neither? I'm interested on your perspective about this.

  4. I think that when you are in a situation of bad vs. worse, choosing bad can be justified as the better decision. Also, this hypothetical leaves out many choices that you would actually have in real life. In real life for example, I think that the morally correct decision would be to jump in front of the train yourself, but that is not presented as a choice in the scenario. I also think that when you don't know whether something is good or bad, you can safely make a decision based on your prior knowledge that you feel is the correct decision, and you will not be condemned for it. If we are honestly trying our hardest to make the right choice, God wouldn't say we made the wrong choice when judgment day came. It's certainly never good to kill a person, but that might be better than killing ten people if that is the other option.

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