Imagine a train track with five people tied to it. To the side there is another track with one person tied to it. A train is heading straight down the line towards the five people and is going too fast to stop. There is a lever next to you which would change the course of the train and divert it down the track with one person tied to it. There is no one else around and only you can decide whether to pull the lever or not. You do not know any of the people involved and also do not know anything about their lives. Do you divert the train or allow it to run its course?
The main theory that is involved in this question is called ‘Utilitarianism’. Utilitarianism makes the claim that a person should do the action that creates the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Any action can be justified within utilitarianism if it creates more ‘good’ than another action. Utilitarianism is, therefore, a theory that deals with outcomes and comes under the broader sphere of ‘consequentialism.’
The opposing theory to consequentialism is something that is known as ‘deontology’. This is a theory that says certain actions are always wrong no matter what the consequences. For instance, in deontology, lying might always be considered wrong regardless of the consequences; the act of lying itself is the thing to be considered. However, in consequentialism, a lie can be justified on the occasions in which its effects are deemed to be good; the consequences of lying are the things to be considered.
There exists a basic right to life which, as humans, we try to follow. Killing others is outlawed because we generally believe that every person has the right to live their life and no one else has the right to take that life away. In the situation with the train there are two possible outcomes which both lead to life being cut short. Due to the fact that we place such value on life we have a duty to reduce the number of people who die. One ought to commit the act that results in the fewest deaths, and this is to kill the one and save the five.
People suffer unfortunate deaths on a daily basis. The fact that people die in accidents does not necessarily mean that their right to life has been violated. Therefore, if one lets the train run its course five people will suffer an unfortunate accident. The real violation of rights in this situation is the action of changing the course of the train. The single person on the track is in no immediate danger. However, by changing the course of the train one is actively participating in the removal of that person’s life. If we believe that a person has the right not to be murdered then pulling the lever is a violation of that right.
When any life is removed so too is the future good that life may produce; all of the good that person would have experienced as well as all of the good they could have brought to other people’s lives will no longer occur. It is difficult to say precisely how much good a person may bring. However, it is fair to assume that saving five people brings with it a greater chance of higher levels of ‘good’. Considering the fact that one does not know anything about the people on the tracks one must assume that there will be five times more ‘good’ produced by saving their lives than if the one person is saved.
To look at life simply as a tool for producing greater good reduces it to a numbers game. Humans are all vastly different and to suggest that one can accurately measure the ‘good’ they experience or produce misunderstands the complexity of what it means to be human. Unfortunately simply saying that killing one person to save five produces more good does not deal with the moral issue at hand. If we abducted one person and used their organs to save five dying people we would consider that to be wrong. The principle is that same: kill one to save five.
The philosopher John Rawls came up with a thought experiment to discover the right way to organize a society. When people talk about how society should be organized they generally take their own situation and interests into account. Rawls asked us to imagine a situation in which we do not know anything at all about our own lives and then try to organize society? Without knowing anything about our wealth, intelligence, personality, race, gender, religion etc., we would create the fairest society. This is because without knowing who we are we have no idea where we will be in society once it has been organized. So, in order to make sure we have the best chance to be treated fairly we create a society in which all people are treated fairly. The same experiment can be applied to the train problem. If we do not know anything about who we are in the experiment we would chose to kill the one person. This is because there is a greater chance of us being one of the five people and so killing the one person gives us the best chance to survive.
We do not always choose the most rational course of action. If we do not know anything about who we are in the situation we still know that if the one person is killed then their life has been unfairly ended. If the five people die then we know that this is an accident. Therefore we might still choose to allow the five people to die. This is because we can still decide the right or wrong of the situation and choose not to make the decision based on self interest.
People die in accidents and by natural cause all of the time. However, it is much rarer for a person to be actively involved in another person’s death. If one chooses to pull the lever and change the course of the train then one is actively participating in the death of the one person. The other option involves no action; it simply allows a set of events to run their course. There is, therefore, a greater responsibility involved in being actively involved in the death of another.
Choosing not to act in the situation is still a choice and does not remove the responsibility in the situation. If someone stands by and watched as another person drowns, even though they could have rescued them, then they are no better than the murderer who participates in a person’s death. The idea that active killing only relates to taking action to cause death is wrong. When one has the ability to prevent death then one is actively involved in the situation whether one chooses to accept it or not.
It is impossible to know what any of the people involved in the situation will do with their life. One might be a serial killer while another might be a life-saving doctor. By attempting to use some sort of calculation in the scenario we are presuming that we have more knowledge than we actually do. In reality we are totally ignorant to the right course of action and doing anything in the situation could be a terrible mistake that causes a lot of pain and suffering in the future.
Given that we don’t know anything about these individuals all we have to work with are the numbers. If you take five random people and one random person then there is a greater chance that among the five people there is a life saving doctor. The only time this is not true is if the average person has a negative effect on the world. However, if this is the case we would always have to act in a way that fewest people survived which is absurd.
While sometimes our feelings as to what is right and what is wrong are not accurate they are needed when thinking about morality. If a theory is well argued and thought out but goes against our feelings as to what is right and wrong then we will dismiss it. Most people have the feeling that killing is wrong and so to partake in any action that leads to the death of another is also wrong.
Our feelings are clouded by the way the situation is presented and so we cannot use feeling as a way to decide what to do. For example, most people instinctively say that they would pull the lever to save the five people. However, if the case is presented differently and to save the five people you have to push a man onto the track to stop the train then most people will say not to do it. The two situations are morally identical; the only change is the physical act that needs to be done. Therefore it is clear that our feelings can change despite the principle staying the same.
As soon as we agree that there are situations where killing is acceptable we have reason to fear for our own safety. By accepting killing in certain situations society as a whole becomes more open to the idea. It then becomes hard to draw the line as to where killing is acceptable and where killing is unacceptable. It is much better to outlaw all instances of killing so that we have a general moral standard to follow in all situations.
The specific circumstances of every case need to be taken into account. In this case someone will definitely lose their life and one’s decision is to decide how to minimize the damage done. It is wrong to suggest that this is an act of killing; instead it is an attempt to reduce the number of deaths in a tragic situation. Pulling the lever is not an act that the person would do if the five people were not tied down and so it is very different from an act of intentional murder.
To actually be involved in the death of another person is an incredibly traumatic experience. Soldiers coming back from war often suffer from ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ which suggests that being in a situation in which you have to take another persons life has a long lasting impact on your mental health. This is also true for people who are not directly involved in the act of killing. For instance, the people who worked on developing the atomic bomb described an incredible guilt for what they had created even though they were not involved in the decision to drop the bombs. The same traumatic experiences would likely affect the person responsible for pulling the lever.
The same traumatic affect would also result from not pulling the lever. One must still cope with the fact that one could have saved the five lives. Post traumatic stress disorder can be brought on by experience with horrific death regardless of whether or not the sufferer caused the death.
If we choose to save the five people just because we have the power to do so then we also have to consider all the other lives that are in our power to save. It is in our power to donate all of our excess money to charity to save lives and so we must also do this. Actions like this are worthy of praise but no one would suggest that we have a duty to do them.
In the train example there is no one else around and it is only you that can save the five lives. With the charity example there are many other ways in which the lives can be saved; governments can save them or other people can donate money. Therefore the moral duty to act is dramatically reduced.
This bibliography is from the original debate on the same motion so the sources take no account of the age range this debate is aiming at
Alexander, Larry and Moore, Michael, "Deontological Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/ethics-deontological
Daniels, Victor, ‘Sartre Summery’, Sonoma State University, http://www.sonoma.edu/users/d/daniels/sartre%20sum.html
Donadio, Rachel, ‘Benedict Canonizes 5 New Saints’, The New York Times, 11 October 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/12/world/europe/12pope.html
Long, Tony, ‘Aug. 6, 1945: ‘I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds’, Wired, 6 August 2007, http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2007/08/dayintech_0806
Martynowicz, Daniel, ‘Afghanistan PTSD Worse Than Vietnam’, News By The Second, 1 July 2010, http://newsbythesecond.com/afghanistan-ptsd-worse-than-vietnam/2857/
Reiner, Peter B., ‘The trolley problem and the evolution of war’, Neuroethics at the core, 11 July 2011, http://neuroethicscanada.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/the-trolley-problem-and-the-evolution-of-war/
Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University press, 1971
Richardson, Henry S., ‘John Rawls (1921-2002)’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 18 November 2005, http://www.iep.utm.edu/rawls/
ScienceBlog, ‘1 in 5 Iraq, Afghanistan Vets has PTSD’, 17 April 2008, http://scienceblog.com/15954/1-in-5-iraq-afghanistan-vets-has-ptsd-major-depression-rand/
Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, "Consequentialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries/consequentialism/
The Dan Legal Network, ‘The Good Samaritan Law Across Europe’, http://www.daneurope.org/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=c09228f3-a745-480b-9549-d9fc8bbbd535&groupId=10103