To kick off this exciting foray into the philosophical domains, I thought we could start with a couple of jolly thought experiments. (Correction: As will soon become apparent there are few thought experiments in moral philosophy that can be described as “jolly”. This is not just because philososlothers are a miserable bunch, but because if everything were cushty, there wouldn’t be much reason for morality in the first place). Anyway, let’s get the ball rolling…
Imagine that you’re standing by a railway junction and there is an out-of-control train beetling down the track at breakneck speak. The track branches into two, one on which five people are tied and one on which one person is tied. You do not have time to rush over and untie any of them, but you’re standing by a leaver which can divert the train.
If you do nothing, the train will smash into the hapless group of five, whereas if you pull the leaver, the train will change tracks and hit the lone person.
What should you do? (I did warn you it wouldn’t be jolly)
This problem, thought up by Philippa Foot, is meant to test our ethical intuitions and as you might expect there are two schools of thought on this question; those who say “Pull the leaver!” and those that say “Don’t!”.
The first group thinks that it is obvious that you ought to pull the leaver and kill the one person in order to save five people. After all one person dying is better than five people dying.
However, the second group thinks it is equally obvious that it’s wrong to pull the leaver. By taking action and pulling the leaver, you are actively killing another person, while if you do nothing, you cannot be held responsible for your inaction, they say.
Philososloths have conducted surveys (never a very common or comfortable project for them) and it seems that most people think the right thing to do is to pull the leaver, even though it means actively killing a person.
It might seem that it’s acceptable to pull the leaver, killing one, but saving five. But, consider an alternative thought experiment in which five people need an organ transplant in order to survive. One needs a heart, another needs a kidney, a third needs lungs, and so on. Paul, a healthy person, has all these organs and is a perfect donor match for the ailing patients.
Should we kill Paul and harvest his organs in order to save five people. If killing one to save five was permissible in the train case, why is it not in this case?
Is this example comparable to the train example? If not, why not?
You’ll find that I ask a lot of questions in these philososlothical blogs. This is intended to get my brain cell going as much as anything else. Please do get in touch if you have a question relating to any of the issues I will be raising here.