Home______The Buck Stops Here: A Moral Dilemma & A Thought Experiment

Version 1: A trolley is out of control headed down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by an evil moral philosopher.

The good news: You can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track. The bad news: one person is tied to that track.

The dilemma: Should you flip the switch to divert the trolley onto the track with one person?

Version 2, this one a tougher choice: The same trolley, the same track, the same 5 people. The difference is that you can stop the trolley by shoving a heavy weight in front of it. For purposes of the experiment, assume that a very fat man next you is sufficient to stop it. You can push him in the trolley's path. By his death, the other 5 will be saved.

The dilemma: Should you push him in front of the trolley?

Questions: What makes version 2 different than version 1? Why might the version 2 decision be more difficult? What is the moral distinction between the two versions?

Version 3, just to keep things difficult: Same trolley, same track, same 5 people. You can save the 5 people by crashing another trolley into the runaway trolley. But both trolleys will be derailed by the impact and will roll down a hill and kill a man getting a sun tan in his back yard.

What would you do? Remember that to do nothing is also a moral choice.

None of these versions offer easy solutions, but each has different moral implications.

One way to look at these is to ask, Does the problem have to do with rights in versions 2 and 3, as distinct from version 1? That is, nobody has a right to be run over in version one but in version two the fat man has a right not to be pushed and in version three the sleeping man has a similar right.

At the close of WW II, President Harry S. Truman was faced with such a dilemma when he decided to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. On the one hand, a land invasion of Japan would lead to horrific casualties on both the Japanese and American sides *; on the other, the dropping of the bombs would unleash an evil never before witnessed and would almost completely wipe out entire cities. Given the implications of the thought experiment versions, he decided to violate the rights of people like the fat man and the man in a back yard.

This was one of the toughest decisions anybody ever had to make. Truman had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office. It read, "The buck stops here." It did indeed.

* In fact the figures were based largely on US Secretary of State James Byrnes' claims at the time, but no serious attempt had ever been made to estimate the likely costs of invasion. Did Truman make a hugely important moral decision based on faulty calculations and intelligence? (Today, we find that Iraq was invaded based on a desire to read into intelligence that weapons of mass destruction were there. Chief weapons inspector David Kay recently resigned, announcing that he could not find them and they had not existed prior to invasion.)

(For a similar thought experiment, see John Rawls on social justice, 7 January.)


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