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Is it Ethical to Save Four People at the Expense of One?

Lessons from the Talmud

On Tuesday I posted a blog that presented two ethical dilemmas based on the “Trolley Problem.” The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment in ethics, first introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967. Others have  also extensively analyzed the problem including Judith Jarvis Thomason, Peter Unger, and Frances Kamm  as recently as 1996. I have used these problems in my ethics class to challenge students’ moral intuition. Here are the two dilemmas once again:

Dilemma #1

Imagine that you are standing on a footbridge spanning some trolley tracks. You see that a runaway trolley is threatening to kill five people. Standing next to you, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people, is a railway worker wearing a large backpack. You quickly realize that the only way to save the people is to push the man off the bridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die, but his body will stop the trolley from reaching the others. Legal concerns aside, would it be ethical for you to save the five people by pushing this stranger to his death?

Dilemma #2

Now assume that the runaway trolley is heading for five railway workmen who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. The only way to save these people is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley onto a side track where it will run over and kill one workman instead of five. Ignoring legal concerns, would it be ethically acceptable for you to turn the trolley by hitting the switch in order to save five people at the expense of one person?

The choice is between saving five lives at the cost of taking one life. Before I get to the “answers,” I want to explain how one researcher is using MRI technology to map brain response while analyzing the dilemma. Joshua Greene at Harvard University was more concerned to understand why we have the intuitions, so he used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, to examine what happens in people’s brains when they make these moral judgments.

Greene found that people asked to make a moral judgment about “personal” violations, like pushing the stranger off the footbridge, showed increased activity in areas of the brain associated with the emotions. This was not the case with people asked to make judgments about relatively “impersonal” violations like throwing a switch. Moreover, the minority of subjects who did consider that it would be right to push the stranger off the footbridge took longer to reach this judgment than those who said that doing so would be wrong. Interestingly results to say the least.

I received quite a few responses to my blog and selected the best one with respect to identifying the ethical issues. The response comes from Michael Belk, a frequent reader of my blog. Here it is:

#1: I do not believe it to be ethical to intentionally end someone else's life whether it is to save others or not.  I do not believe it is my moral responsibility to sacrifice one life in order that others may go on. 

You hope and pray that it is not their time and leave the results of their outcome to faith.  I would feel terrible, but if you push someone in the way to save others, you may as well say you killed a man.  I would never be able to forgive myself.

The man has a family and people who love him, so how could you explain your actions to his family.

#2. Again I do not believe you should intentionally take a life, but if your intentions were to save the other five men and you were unaware of the damage it would do to the sole man, then you acted out of goodwill and that is more admirable.

Michael’s insights are right on the money. We have no right to sacrifice the life of one person to save others. There is a saying from the Talmud, an authoritative record of rabbinic discussions on Jewish law, Jewish ethics, customs, legends and stories: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

We have no right to decide who lives and who dies. Yes, if we can save one person without harming others we have a moral obligation to do so. However, to save one life while sacrificing others is an arbitrary act in many ways. What if the one sacrificed is a humanitarian, well-respected and well-known person who works tirelessly for the poor and others who can’t help themselves? What if those saved are criminals who committed murder and escaped from prison. You see the dilemma? Who are we to judge who is a good person, and be saved, and who is a bad person? We should focus on leading the best possible life we can; to serve others whether through medicine, the clergy, the law, a teacher, nurse, or first-responder.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 15, 2013