Monday, October 20, 2014

Tough Decisions

In 1967 a British philosopher developed a problem, a kind of thought experiment, called the “Trolley Dilemma.”  Since then it has caused much discussion and spawned several variations.  In it you control a switch that will reroute a trolley from the main track onto a spur track.  The trolley is coming, and ahead on the track are five workmen unaware of its approach.  They will surely be killed.  If you pull the switch the trolley will be diverted and you will save the five lives, but the trolley will hit and kill one other workman on the spur track.  What would you do?

In purely utilitarian terms the right answer is to pull the switch.  The choice between five dying and one dying is a pure mathematical decision.  If you were not there, however, the five would be killed with no one to blame, which is the same as doing nothing.  It is reasonable to assume that pulling the switch is the equivalent of killing the single workman.  One variation, which makes it more interesting, replaces the switch with an innocent bystander and asks if it would be ethical to throw him in front of the trolley to save the five.  This usually gives participants more pause than the more mechanical action of just pulling a switch.  Clearly there is no good answer.  It is a test of values.

Now I digress from the original problem.  Let’s replace the one workman on the spur track with a small tree or rose bush.  Despite the fact that shrubs are living things, it makes the decision much easier.  Even if it was a very rare or a endangered species of rose bush, the problem becomes a no-brainer – you save the people.

As a next step I replace the rose bush with a box of spiders or garter snakes.  These are living animals that benefit us by eating insects, but few would feel squeamish or hesitate to kill the spiders to save the five workmen.  The decision is still simple.

Moving on, I continue the escalation by changing the unaware target from spiders to an ugly, smelly or otherwise unpopular mammal like a rat, mole or skunk.  At this point, or perhaps even at the last stage, some far-out animal rights advocates would object.  They argue that the rat or skunk has exactly the same right to life as a human and the problem has regressed to the original moral choice.  Most of us, though, would not agonize over the choice between killing a rat or skunk vs. allowing five workmen to die – even if it required actually throwing the box of rats rather than just pulling a switch.

At what point then does each of us cross the line?  At what point does the majority cross the line and declare that there is no difference from the original problem?  At what point does the majority allow themselves to be bullied, badgered or worn down, succumbing with indifference to passive acceptance of someone else’s value system?

Do some say it is identical to the original situation if we must balance five human lives against that of a cute bunny, a baby seal or a brown-eyed doe?  How about a puppy or kitten?  Pets can become like part of the family.  We become very attached to them, but by replacing the one workman, a human stranger, in the original problem with our family pet could it ever put the choice into the same ethical category?  (Remember, I wrote previously about a family that tried to refuse entry into a tornado shelter to another family because it would mean putting their dog outside and in danger.)

This is the kind of question I wonder about when I read about people demonstrating to save the life of a dog belonging to an Ebola patient.  The NY Times science reporter tells us that dogs can contract Ebola and can even be carriers without showing symptoms.  Are the demonstrators disregarding this information, or are they making the ethical choice of not pulling the switch because the value the life of a pet equals that of one or more human beings?  I suspect it is neither; they just have good intentions and are going with their instincts.  But is everyone afraid to even question such a decision so as to not appear as cold-hearted and cruel?  Don’t we want those who are protecting our health to try to make the difficult, logical decisions, whatever those are, rather than follow the easy politically popular path?

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