Solely In Black and White: A Question of Morals and Ethics...

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Question of Morals and Ethics...

There are many interpretation and arguments as to what is ethics and what is the origin of ethical reasoning.  One common line of reasoning as taught in many professional and theological capacities is “the golden rule” or the ethic of reciprocity. Basically, one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. Another line of reasoning is known as the greater good; wherein the solution that benefits the most people is the most ethically sound. Those theories sound reasonable and rather agreeable. However, while those explanation should for the most part answer a significant portion of ethical dilemmas, there are many that do not fall within their domain or worse, some of these ethical conundrums question the validity of these premises. So here is one that I was always troubled by, a quintessential classic ethical dilemma.

Hypothetically, let us say one was standing in the middle of train-yard right next to a railway manual switch. Currently there is a runaway train fast approaching the juncture. (Such as in Runaway) In its current path there are three people on that segment of the track who will definitely be killed by this speeding train. However, if you flip the switch and send the train down the other track, those three people will live, but one person on that segment of the track will be killed because of your actions. The question is, do you flip the switch? Under the reasoning of the greater good, one would be obligated to flip the switch. However, under The Golden Rule things become a little murkier. Who's perspective are we supposed to protect? Personally, I always contended that I wouldn’t be able to flip the switch because I couldn’t in good conscience kill another human being in any capacity.

Coal Miners
Fair enough, but now I have a new dilemma that has piqued my interest. It's easier when its abstract, so lets try something a little more practical. Let us say a group of coal miners gets trapped underground, which isn't all that uncommon. The rescue team informers the miners via cellphone or some form of radio communication establish that they will not be able to rescue them for 3 weeks due to the depth of the mine and the complexity involved in the rescue operation.  It has been determined that they, the group stuck underground, does not have enough food to survive for this duration. Upon consideration and waiting till the last possible moment, the miners reach a consensus that they will make a lottery to determine who should die in order to become food for the others. Person B is chosen, killed, and eaten. 

Upon their rescue, the miners are hospitalized where they are treated for shock, malnourishment, dehydration, Rickets, and decompression sickness. After their recuperation, they are summoned to court and tried for the murder of Person B.  Do you believe they are culpable for murder? Did the surviving miners act ethically?  Most importantly, what would you have done? (feel free to answer this question in the poll on the upper right-hand portion of the sidebar) 


  1. I can't stand ethical/moral conundrums like this. In the end, whatever conclusion we make will come from a rational and calm perspective, while real-life situations like these are in essence emotional and messy. No one can say what should have happened or what should be done.

  2. Fair enough. There is a scholarly belief that such situations should be viewed not through the lens of logic or civility, but through the lens of an alternative thought process entirely, specifically, the laws of nature. That is not to say that these questions are without merit. They can superimpose one’s ideals onto impractical cases and ask people to think about their values from a different perspective. It’s also interesting to answer these questions to gain an understanding of human nature and of social progress. Granted, these pursuits in the yearning for purely theoretical and esoterically knowledge is arguably pointless, so can be said of discussing Sci-Fi. :-P Incidentally, I recall having an intellectual discussion with my wife while we were dating what the best superpower would be if one had such a choice. Although similarly pointless in the abstract, being that you are "Princess Lea" and I suppose you’d appreciate this theoretical question more than the former, if given the choice what superpower would you chose and why? :-)

  3. Discussing sci-fi is not the same as discussing hypotheticals. Sci-fi, which is science fiction, can be discussed about the same as any discussion involving novels or fiction or movies. They're just good stories involving warp speed.

    However, you are presenting a "What would you do if x happened," which I can safely say I have no idea, nor do I wish to analyze what I might do.

    Although, if asked which superpower I seek, I am currently torn between telekinesis and force-fields.

  4. "Hypothetically, let us say one was standing in the middle of train-yard right next to a railway manual switch. ..."

    This is British philosopher Philippa Foot’s classic Trolley Problem, extensively analyzed over the last half century in the literature of both academic moral philosophy as well as the Halachah, as documented by the erudite and indefatigable Menachem Butler:

  5. Yitzhak, thanks for the info and the links, very interesting stuff. I have to tell you, I didn’t know the origin of that hypothetical until you pointed it out, although I did know it was famous.

    Recently, I was made aware that the second hypothetical is actually based on a real life situation that occurred in England in 1884. The circumstances were a bit different, such that the scenario comprised of three men stranded on a boat lost at sea. Personally, I like the second one better because there is essentially no choice of inaction; a conscious decision must be made. Nonetheless, the outcome of that case was that the two surviving parties were found guilty of murder and put to death.

  6. Well, to be honest, I had seen the Hazon Ish and Ziz Eliezer a while ago, but I hadn't known anything about the secular discussion until I saw Menachem Butler's piece.

    And that's really the interesting question - does the awareness that the question has been discussed by major Halachists affect one's perspective on the problem?


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