What would you do?

Ethical Dilemmas Challenge our Reasoning Skills

What Is Ethics?

The term ethics is derived from the Greek word ethikos which itself is derived from the Greek word ethos, meaning “custom” or “character.” In philosophy, ethical behavior is that which is “good.” The Western tradition of ethics is sometimes called moral philosophy. The field of ethics or moral philosophy involves developing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. These concepts do not change as one’s desires and motivations change. They are not relative to the situation. They are immutable.

In a general sense, ethics (or moral philosophy) addresses fundamental questions such as: How should I live my life? That question leads to others such as: What sort of person should I strive to be? What values are important? What standards or principles should I live by? There are various ways to define ethics. The simplest may be to say that ethics deals with “right” and “wrong.” However, it is difficult to judge what may be right or wrong in a particular situation without some frame of reference.

Ethical Dilemmas: Are you an ethical person?

I decided to do something different today in my blog. I describe two hypothetical situations below to challenge readers to think through what the most ethical action would be? I want to give you some time to think about it, so I will post my response on Friday.

Good luck and no cheating!

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 workmen 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?

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 12, 2013