Just for fun: a philosophy/ethics question

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The following is a hypothetical situation. If you want to participate, please explain what you would do and why.

- - - -

You are in a tower at a rail yard where you can control one switch. A train is approaching the fork in the tracks with that switch. (You cannot leave the tower or call anyone until the train passes.)

On one track, a person is tied to the rails. The other track is damaged. If you do nothing, the train will continue onto the damaged track and derail. Many of the passengers and crew will be killed as a result. If you switch the train onto the other track, it will pass safely onto its destination, but it will kill the person tied to the tracks.

It's your decision . . .
  • Profile picture of the author blueclcl
    Imagine being in that situation!

    Erm, if you couldn't stop the train, then you would have to direct it to the one person on track. One life lost would'nt be as bad as hundreds..
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    • Profile picture of the author Claude Whitacre
      It's a no-brainer for me. One life would have to be lost. But if it were my wife or son on the tracks? Sorry, some of those people are going to die.
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      • Profile picture of the author Frank Donovan
        So, you're in the tower with, presumably, a great all-round view, and you didn't notice someone being tied to the tracks? What were you doing?


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      • Profile picture of the author lanfear63
        Originally Posted by Claude Whitacre View Post

        It's a no-brainer for me. One life would have to be lost. But if it were my wife or son on the tracks? Sorry, some of those people are going to die.
        Wife and son, certainly! Mother in law, flick the switch and go for a pint. Spock told me that!
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  • Profile picture of the author ForumGuru
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    One person dies and the the tower controller is brought up on charges for dereliction of duty and negligence!
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    • Originally Posted by ForumGuru View Post

      One person dies and the the tower controller is brought up on charges for dereliction of duty and negligence!
      Okay, let's suppose - just to clarify - that switching the tracks isn't actually your job; you just happen to be in the tower because of a set of random circumstances. (And the person on the tracks was already tied to them when you got there.)
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      • Profile picture of the author Claude Whitacre
        Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

        Okay, let's suppose - just to clarify - that switching the tracks isn't actually your job; you just happen to be in the tower because of a set of random circumstances. (And the person on the tracks was already tied to them when you got there.)
        Welcome to my world.

        I did a question about cutting off your finger to save the lives of 10,000 strangers...and I got jerked around by "What if" questions for maybe 20 posts. I almost took that long to see that I was being teased.

        "But what if you were blindfolded?"

        "What if today was your last day?"

        "What if you knew that nobody would ever find out that you made that decision?"

        "What if the person on the tracks was a beautiful woman...who would be very grateful if you saved her life?"


        Originally Posted by Dan Riffle View Post

        Let's assume the person tied to the tracks is Claude.

        Can the switch be manipulated in a fashion to have the train back over him after it passes? You know, just in case?
        I thought we liked each other...why are you being so mean to me?

        Is it because I'm fat?
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        • Originally Posted by Claude Whitacre View Post

          Welcome to my world.

          I did a question about cutting off your finger to save the lives of 10,000 strangers...and I got jerked around by "What if" questions for maybe 20 posts. I almost took that long to see that I was being teased.

          "But what if you were blindfolded?"

          "What if today was your last day?"

          "What if you knew that nobody would ever find out that you made that decision?"

          "What if the person on the tracks was a beautiful woman...who would be very grateful if you saved her life?"
          "What if the person on the tracks was Riffle?"
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          • Profile picture of the author lanfear63
            Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

            "What if the person on the tracks was Riffle?"
            Riffle would be killed of course cos he only does one liners
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  • Profile picture of the author Dan Riffle
    Let's assume the person tied to the tracks is Claude.

    Can the switch be manipulated in a fashion to have the train back over him after it passes? You know, just in case?
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    • Profile picture of the author lanfear63
      Originally Posted by Dan Riffle View Post

      Let's assume the person tied to the tracks is Claude.

      Can the switch be manipulated in a fashion to have the train back over him after it passes? You know, just in case?
      Masterpiece of evil satire!

      Spock would say, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" flick the switch to the single person and go down the pub for a pint.

      Captain Kirk would re-program the scenario so no-one gets killed.

      But, I'm afraid you did not allow for the fact that I'm Superman, a superhero and I would just fly down and lift up the train and deposit it further down the track safely.

      Easiest for Spock, minimum work and because it's logical did not have a problem with it.
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      • Profile picture of the author lanfear63
        Actually, who am I to interfere with the lives of "Railway Track Bondage Suicide Fetishists" anyway. Live and let die I say!
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  • Profile picture of the author HeySal
    So you're in a tower with the main view and control -- with no means of calling anyone to get that person off the track in time if possible?

    Of course people will sacrifice one for the many. That's not that much of a test.

    Uh so how do ya suppose Claude got tied to the tracks? Hey, Dan - any ideas on that one?
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    • Profile picture of the author Dan Riffle
      Originally Posted by HeySal View Post

      Uh so how do ya suppose Claude got tied to the tracks? Hey, Dan - any ideas on that one?
      Well, exactly where were you at the time of the events, hmmm?
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    • Originally Posted by HeySal View Post

      So you're in a tower with the main view and control -- with no means of calling anyone to get that person off the track in time if possible?

      Of course people will sacrifice one for the many. That's not that much of a test.
      That option has a couple of problems, though.

      The first issue is legal: as soon as you move the switch, it's murder no matter how you look at it - whereas if you do nothing, it's just manslaughter (at least in the US, where there's no 'good samaritan' law). Besides, if the train derails, any legal charges are almost certainly getting made against whoever was in charge of railroad safety, not you.

      The other problem lies in whether life can or should be quantified. What if the person on the tracks is a brilliant heart surgeon who will likely continue to save many more lives? What if the train is carrying only a group of convicted serial child molesters to prison? You get the idea.

      The Spock approach may seem elegant, but it's definitely not perfect.
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      • Profile picture of the author Dennis Gaskill
        Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

        The first issue is legal: as soon as you move the switch, it's murder no matter how you look at it - whereas if you do nothing, it's just manslaughter (at least in the US, where there's no 'good samaritan' law).
        All states have Good Samaritan laws. What, and who, those laws cover varies a great deal. Some states even compel citizens to render help. For example, in Vermont an individual can be fined up to $100 for not offering emergency assistance.

        What is lacking in the United States is a unified federal statute to minimize variations from state to state.
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        • Profile picture of the author seasoned
          Originally Posted by Dennis Gaskill View Post

          All states have Good Samaritan laws. What, and who, those laws cover varies a great deal. Some states even compel citizens to render help. For example, in Vermont an individual can be fined up to $100 for not offering emergency assistance.

          What is lacking in the United States is a unified federal statute to minimize variations from state to state.
          Last I heard, the good samaritan law didn't exist everywhere in the US. ALSO, the law DOES fly against the good samaritan law. If you save a persons life, they can actually sue for wrongful life! Wrongful life - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Contrary to wikipedia, there HAVE been adults that have sued people for providing lifesaving measures, and succeeding. They will actually do the same to DOCTORS in hospitals, though THERE, they are expected to file a DNR NLM(?) "Do Not Resuscitate" "No life saving measures". SO, if a person is dying, and a drug, oxygen, or CPR could save them, it is not to be done.

          Back to THIS though, this really assumes a lot. Could a train REALLY go over a person without running a high risk of being derailed? The track damage COULD be relatively minor by comparison.

          Steve
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          • Profile picture of the author Frank Donovan
            Originally Posted by seasoned View Post

            Back to THIS though, this really assumes a lot. Could a train REALLY go over a person without running a high risk of being derailed? The track damage COULD be relatively minor by comparison.
            Steve, are you trying to say something about Claude's size?


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          • Profile picture of the author Dennis Gaskill
            Originally Posted by seasoned View Post

            Last I heard, the good samaritan law didn't exist everywhere in the US.
            According to ASTHO all states have a Good Samaritan law. Like I said, who those laws protect and what kind of protection is afforded varies greatly.

            Volunteer Protection Acts and Good Samaritan Laws Fact Sheet | State Public Health | ASTHO
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            • Originally Posted by Dennis Gaskill View Post

              According to ASTHO all states have a Good Samaritan law. Like I said, who those laws protect and what kind of protection is afforded varies greatly.

              Volunteer Protection Acts and Good Samaritan Laws Fact Sheet | State Public Health | ASTHO
              Be that as it may, would any such law apply in this kind of scenario? My guess would be no.
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              • Profile picture of the author Dennis Gaskill
                Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

                Be that as it may, would any such law apply in this kind of scenario? My guess would be no.
                I don't really see any point in guessing. Neither of us know, and the law may be intentionally vague in order to leave room for the discretionary judgment of a court to decide specific cases.

                You had stated there were no Good Samaritan laws in the US. I thought it best not to leave that statement out there for others to believe since it's not true, but I wasn't trying to relate it to your invented scenario.

                If you really want me to guess though, I'd say it would apply in some places and not in others. I don't think it would be a black and white decision in most states. For example, in Wisconsin:

                "Any person who renders emergency care at the scene of any emergency or accident in good faith shall be immune from civil liability for his or her acts or omissions in rendering such emergency care."
                About that, Lawyers on Lawyers state:

                The bad news is that not everyone knows what emergency care is and which acts are covered?
                It could be argued that throwing the switch was an act of emergency care.
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                • Profile picture of the author MissTerraK
                  Okay, it's just too doggone bad that you all don't believe in psychics, for if you did, then you would believe me when I say that I foresaw the whole thing and therefore, I...

                  No, I did not call out security guards to make sure no one was tied to the tracks...


                  And no, I did not go ahead and have the tracks replaced before they could become damaged...


                  I saw this scenario beforehand so I ...








                  called in sick that day! :p


                  Terra
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      • Profile picture of the author Claude Whitacre
        Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

        That option has a couple of problems, though.

        The first issue is legal: as soon as you move the switch, it's murder no matter how you look at it - whereas if you do nothing, it's just manslaughter (at least in the US, where there's no 'good samaritan' law). Besides, if the train derails, any legal charges are almost certainly getting made against whoever was in charge of railroad safety, not you.

        The other problem lies in whether life can or should be quantified. What if the person on the tracks is a brilliant heart surgeon who will likely continue to save many more lives? What if the train is carrying only a group of convicted serial child molesters to prison? You get the idea.

        The Spock approach may seem elegant, but it's definitely not perfect.

        I was assuming the person making this decision had none of those facts.

        I hope this doesn't sound odd, but what has legality have to do with it?
        Would anyone be thinking about that? I sure wouldn't.
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      • Profile picture of the author Frank Donovan
        Okay, Hopeless Bro, let's take this seriously for a minute.

        Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

        The other track is damaged. If you do nothing, the train will continue onto the damaged track and derail. Many of the passengers and crew will be killed as a result.
        Assuming the above is true, then the operator really doesn't have an option. If the only other track is damaged in a way that would result in the train derailing, the option to switch tracks simply isn't there.


        Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

        The other problem lies in whether life can or should be quantified. What if the person on the tracks is a brilliant heart surgeon who will likely continue to save many more lives? What if the train is carrying only a group of convicted serial child molesters to prison? You get the idea.
        That's a non argument. The future is an abstract concept - it doesn't exist until it happens (at which time, of course, it's no longer the future). Every human life has exactly the same value. Therefore, once you begin to quantify a life, you diminish them all.


        Meh. Flippant was more fun.


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        • Originally Posted by Frank Donovan View Post

          Okay, Hopeless Bro, let's take this seriously for a minute.



          Assuming the above is true, then the operator really doesn't have an option. If the only other track is damaged in a way that would result in the train derailing, the option to switch tracks simply isn't there.
          I must have missed a step in following how you reached that conclusion. What is it that makes failing to switch tracks "not an option?" Granted, it's not a pleasant option but it's still physically possible, right? :confused:


          That's a non argument. The future is an abstract concept - it doesn't exist until it happens (at which time, of course, it's no longer the future). Every human life has exactly the same value. Therefore, once you begin to quantify a life, you diminish them all.
          That's a very legitimate view, which many of the great philosophers share (and which I personally am inclined to agree with). But, because this is a 'fun' thread, I'm going to play devil's advocate for a moment and ask a few other questions?

          1. Would you be willing to let someone else kill you to save the passengers on the train?
          2. In a situation like this, does the end justify the means?
          3. Claude said he'd let the train derail to save his wife or son. Does that make him evil?

          By the way, anyone's welcome to answer these (except Riffle! ). They're just food for thought.
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          • Profile picture of the author Dan Riffle
            Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

            1. Would you be willing to let someone else kill you to save the passengers on the train?

            No. While speaking theoretically, every life has equal value, my life is considerably more valuable to me than a group of strangers. Replace the passengers variable with friends and/or family and my answer might change.

            2. In a situation like this, does the end justify the means?

            Irrelevant. Based on the parameters, only one of two outcomes are possible. We've just chosen which outcome. Although, this question is vaguely worded, so I might be missing your point.

            3. Claude said he'd let the train derail to save his wife or son. Does that make him evil?

            No, it makes him human. (And that's the first time anyone's said that about him.)
            Answered above.
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          • Profile picture of the author Frank Donovan
            Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

            I must have missed a step in following how you reached that conclusion. What is it that makes failing to switch tracks "not an option?" Granted, it's not a pleasant option but it's still physically possible, right? :confused:
            The switch might be in operation, but the track is damaged - it doesn't work. That means it's not fit for purpose. If it's not viable, it's not an option.

            1. Would you be willing to let someone else kill you to save the passengers on the train?
            If I'm tied to the track, I don't have a choice. Would I volunteer my life to save the passengers? Not unless I knew there were loved ones on board. Otherwise, self-preservation takes precedence.

            2. In a situation like this, does the end justify the means?
            Depends on the end. And the means. It would also depend on whose perspective you're talking about. Each of the protagonists would likely have a different view.

            3. Claude said he'd let the train derail to save his wife or son. Does that make him evil?
            No, that makes him a husband and father. It's the body he hides in the freezer that makes him evil.
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            • Profile picture of the author Frank Donovan
              Hey Dan - stop posting before me and stealing my answers!





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              • Profile picture of the author Dan Riffle
                Originally Posted by Frank Donovan View Post

                Hey Dan - stop posting before me and stealing my answers!





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                I consider it an honor to share answers with you.
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            • Originally Posted by Frank Donovan View Post

              1. Would you be willing to let someone else kill you to save the passengers on the train?

              If I'm tied to the track, I don't have a choice. Would I volunteer my life to save the passengers? Not unless I knew there were loved ones on board. Otherwise, self-preservation takes precedence.
              That being the case, how can you claim that every individual human life has the same value as every other, when you know that you can't behave in a way that's consistent with this principle?
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              • Profile picture of the author Dan Riffle
                Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

                That being the case, how can you claim that every individual human life has the same value as every other, when you know that you can't behave in a way that's consistent with this principle?
                Because we're genetically wired for self-preservation. Theoretically we're all equal. However, I'll be damned if I'm going to let a theory keep me from seeing the next sunrise.
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              • Profile picture of the author Frank Donovan
                Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

                That being the case, how can you claim that every individual human life has the same value as every other, when you know that you can't behave in a way that's consistent with this principle?
                There's no conflict. Our genes are programmed to survive, to reproduce and continue the species. That's why we have an instinct for self-preservation and an inbuilt urge to protect those whose genes are close to ours. Without that, our species would never have reached this point. On a wider level, the value we attach to all human life also serves to protect the species. It's not simply altruism - genes really are quite selfish, to quote a phrase.

                We use props like philosophy and ethics to dress up these instincts and lend a veneer of rationality to our behaviour.


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                • Profile picture of the author Claude Whitacre
                  Originally Posted by Frank Donovan View Post

                  There's no conflict. Our genes are programmed to survive, to reproduce and continue the species. That's why we have an instinct for self-preservation and an inbuilt urge to protect those whose genes are close to ours. Without that, our species would never have reached this point. On a wider level, the value we attach to all human life also serves to protect the species. It's not simply altruism - genes really are quite selfish, to quote a phrase.

                  We use props like philosophy and ethics to dress up these instincts and lend a veneer of rationality to our behaviour.


                  Frank

                  Smart. It's also why we defend our tribe, and then our species. It's why we don't have sex with direct relatives. Our intelligence serves our basic drives. Morality and Laws are created after the fact.

                  Insightful. Now I see why Riffle was seduced by you.
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                  • Profile picture of the author Frank Donovan
                    Originally Posted by Claude Whitacre View Post

                    Now I know why Riffle left me for you.
                    Nah. Sharing answers is the oldest trick in the book - it's so transparent. He's just trying to make you jealous.


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                    • Profile picture of the author Claude Whitacre
                      Originally Posted by Frank Donovan View Post

                      Nah. Sharing answers is the oldest trick in the book - it's so transparent. He's just trying to make you jealous.


                      .
                      Well, I'll have you know...that it didn't work. I'm not jealous at all! Because I know...in my heart of hearts..

                      If I let him go...if he's mine...he'll fly back....if he doesn't fly back to me...he was never mine. Fly away, little Riffle.

                      (I threw up in my mouth a little, typing that. But it was worth it)
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                      • Profile picture of the author Dan Riffle
                        Originally Posted by Claude Whitacre View Post

                        (I threw up in my mouth a little, typing that. But it was worth it)
                        No. No, it wasn't.
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                        • Profile picture of the author Kay King
                          In that case, why not be completely aboveboard and state that all human life has equal value except for your own, which has more value than anyone else's as a consequence of your survival instinct?
                          Because we aren't that honest - and we don't believe that of ourselves. We'd like to believe we are altruistic but our genetic makeup will put our "self" at the top of the heap in importance without conscious thought.

                          Heroes are those who override their survival instincts and put others first. Most of us aren't heroes.
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                • Originally Posted by Frank Donovan View Post

                  There's no conflict. Our genes are programmed to survive, to reproduce and continue the species. That's why we have an instinct for self-preservation and an inbuilt urge to protect those whose genes are close to ours. Without that, our species would never have reached this point. On a wider level, the value we attach to all human life also serves to protect the species. It's not simply altruism - genes really are quite selfish, to quote a phrase.

                  We use props like philosophy and ethics to dress up these instincts and lend a veneer of rationality to our behaviour.
                  In that case, why not be completely aboveboard and state that all human life has equal value except for your own, which has more value than anyone else's as a consequence of your survival instinct?

                  Is such a statement any less rational?
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                  • Profile picture of the author Frank Donovan
                    Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

                    In that case, why not be completely aboveboard and state that all human life has equal value except for your own, which has more value than anyone else's as a consequence of your survival instinct?
                    To be clear, it's not my survival instinct - we're all genetically programmed that way. But you posed this as a philosophical/ethical question. That all human life has an equal value is a philosophical/ethical statement in response to that question. And we have to hold on to that tenet precisely because we're subservient to our genes.

                    How any one individual would react in a given situation is a different matter. You may have noticed, acting rationally isn't the human default mode.


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          • Profile picture of the author Claude Whitacre
            Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

            1. Would you be willing to let someone else kill you to save the passengers on the train?
            . Strangers on a train? No. Wife or Son? Yes.


            Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

            2. In a situation like this, does the end justify the means?
            I think that question is asked after the incident. But it would never enter my mind, while making the choice. The only way I could weigh the decision, is if it were a stranger on the tracks, and strangers in the train.
            Then one life equals another...because it's an abstract construct.


            Originally Posted by Hopeless Bromantic View Post

            3. Claude said he'd let the train derail to save his wife or son. Does that make him evil?
            It's worse than that. Any group, no matter how big....
            And any future consequence just wouldn't enter into it.


            Originally Posted by Dan Riffle View Post

            Trust me, if it were you I was agreeing with, I'd question my humanity.
            Why are you so mean to me? First, you make sexy eyes with Frank...and then you insult me.

            I was just thinking about how much you brightened my day, with your clever anecdotes. And then you dash my feelings to the rocks.

            You're a big bully. Go! Frank will never love you, like I did.
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  • Profile picture of the author whateverpedia
    This is along the lines of a real situation that happened during WWII.

    The British had managed to crack the Enigma code. From that they learned that the city of Coventry was going to be bombed by the Germans. Churchill was faced with the dilemma of whether he should evacuate the city or not.

    If he did that, thousands of people would be saved, however the Germans would know that Enigma had been cracked. Knowing that, they would've changed their codes and the war would've been prolonged costing many more thousands of lives.

    Churchill took the decision to sacrifice Coventry for the "greater good". What a decision to have to make though.

    Anyway, back to the topic at hand.

    Sadly, the person tied to the track would have to be sacrificed for the "greater good".
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  • Can you describe what this person tied to the tracks looks like?

    Sometimes these things matter you know. Just sayin...


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    • Profile picture of the author Kay King
      The first issue is legal: as soon as you move the switch, it's murder no matter how you look at it - whereas if you do nothing, it's just manslaughter
      other problem lies in whether life can or should be quantified.
      Best to have someone on this kind of job who can think fast and make snap decisions rather than thinking first of his own liability or waxing philosophical.:p
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    • Profile picture of the author sagittarius
      Originally Posted by stoltingmediagroup View Post

      Can you describe what this person tied to the tracks looks like?

      Sometimes these things matter you know. Just sayin...


      In that case... Let's sacrifice the train.
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  • Profile picture of the author Sumit Menon
    Similar but even more difficult follow-up questions in Michael Sandel's Lecture from the course Justice...

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  • Profile picture of the author seasoned
    The ones going to the field didn't know where the plane was going.

    Pushing the fat man would be murder. But the guy working off the side track wasn't involved either, though they may have assumed they COULD be.

    If you are going to push the fat man, why not risk YOURSELF!

    Medical ethics says that you should give preferential treatment to the worst that could be saved. So the one that is near death would be operated on first. Once they get to a certain point or are stable, or ahead of the others, the others can be operated on.

    And doesn't ANYONE here have some sort of alarm? Even an air horn?

    Steve
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  • Profile picture of the author chitrarang
    I would prefer to save the one person. First, I can't watch the person getting killed right before my eyes. If the train derails, there is a chance that some will be injured but no one killed! Wishful thinking perhaps!
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