Moral Dichotomies

I really like NPR’s RadioLab.  They’ve gotten me through a lot of tedious experiments with minimal pain.

I’ve recently gone really far back in their archive, and I listened to their episode Morality.  In it, they pose three related moral dilemmas:

1. There are five people on a railroad track.  They are too far away for them to hear or see any alerts from you.  The train is coming, and will certainly kill any person on the track if it hits them.  You, however, control the switch and could divert the train to another track, where there is only one person, similarly far away.  Do you pull the switch?

2.  Similar situation to #1: five people on a railroad track, train coming.  This time, you’re on a bridge overlooking the track with a very large person standing next to you.  If you push him off of the bridge, he will die, but he will stop the train and prevent it from killing the five people below.  Do you push him?

3. (Taken from the final episode of M*A*S*H.)  You are in a group of refugees hiding from soldiers.  The soldiers will kill anyone they find.  You are holding your infant child, who is liable to cry at any time and give away the position of all your fellow refugees, in which case everyone will die.  Do you smother the baby to ensure that it will be quiet?

In the RadioLab episode, they offered few conclusions.  In asking people on the street about scenarios #1 and #2, most people would pull the switch (#1) to kill the one person instead of five, but most people would not push the person off the bridge (#2) to save the five.  The hosts posit that we have evolutionary reasons for not wanting to actively murder someone (#2), but evolution hasn’t “caught up” with pulling a switch (#1).  The hosts, one with children and one (at the time) without, disagree about the proper action for #3.  

The framing of the episode and of the questions tries to get you to weigh the merit of one life against many lives.  While this may be an interesting question, all of the scenarios described above (and, I think, all situations that could be devised to ask such a question convincingly) present a false dichotomy.  The questions seem to pose the alternatives (a) kill one person or (b) kill many people.  However, I believe the dichotomies are actually (a) do nothing or (b) kill a person.

In scenarios #1 and #2, the train is killing five people, not you.  In scenario #3, the soldiers have the choice to kill or not kill – not up to you.  

You may recall a similar scene in 12 Years a Slave.  Epps, a cruel plantation owner, tells Platt, the main character, that Platt must either whip fellow slave Patsey or else Epps will whip all of the slaves.  Platt apparently decides that one whipping is better than many and proceeds to beat his friend.

I think he was wrong.  We are all ultimately responsible for our own actions, and not those of others.  In each case, actively choosing murder/whipping is a moral wrong.  

(To be clear, sins of omission are also sins, but I don’t think that discussion applies here.)

What do you think?


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