Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

Would You Kill One to Save Five? please comment

Scenario One: A trolley is about to run over five people tied to the tracks. You happen to be watching the horrible scene unfold. But, you also happen to be next to a lever. If you pull the level, the trolley switches tracks and kills one person (also tied to the tracks). If you do nothing, five people die. Those are your only options.

Do you pull the lever?

Scenario Two: Again, a trolley is about to run over five people tied to the tracks. But now there is a platform overlooking the tracks with a very large man standing on it (I apologize for the offensive nature of this thought experiment in advance). You are standing behind him on the platform. You have two options. You can do nothing and the five people die. Or you can push the large man in front of the trolley, which will stop it; but he will die. Those are the only options you have.

Do you push the large man?

Most people, it turns out, would pull the lever but would not push the large man, usually because the latter is more intentional. Interestingly, men are more willing to push the large man in front of the trolley. Military workers are more likely to push (vs hospital workers), liberals push (as opposed to conservatives), non-religious people push (vs religious) and — wait for it — psychopaths push! But there is no correlation regarding income or education and pushing.

The point, of course, has nothing to do with trolleys or large men. The point is that both outcomes are the same. One person dies and five people are saved. Yet why do we not push the large man? What else is going on here?

It has everything to do with your moral philosophy, which roughly come in two flavors: Utilitarian or Deontologist, John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant. Do you calculate numbers or do you follow strict rules? Does the outcome matter (save five) or does the principle matter more (do not kill)? Does the consequences of your actions matter, or just the actions themselves? Most people (me included) fall into the principle, rule-based camp (Deontology). Other people think that the means justify the end, that morality is about maximizing the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people, that sometimes by golly you have to crack an egg to make an omelet (Utilitarianism).

As for me, I would not pull the lever or push the man. What about you? Please comment below.


Would you kill the fat man

Add a Comment

* = required

Share RSS