Blood on the Tracks

A: So what’ve you been up to recently?.

B:Well I’ve been reading about a fascinating psychological / moral dilemma.

A: Is there nothing you won’t read? Sorry, tell me more?

B: Imagine this situation; You’re standing near a trainline and you see a train heading towards five people. It’s going to knock them over and kill them.

A: How do you know?

B: Well they’re musicians say and have i-pods on and can’t hear anything. They’re just standing around on the track talking about things?

A: How can they hear each other if they’ve i-pods on?

B: Well maybe they’re deaf musicians and they’re signing?

A: With i-pods on?

B: (slightly irritated) Yes. So, anyway you are standing by a switch. The switch will divert the train onto a side track where there’s only one person. So, if you hit the switch, only one person will die instead of five. What do you do?

A: Hit the switch. It’s not a moral problem it’s a maths problem – 5 are greater than 1.

B: OK. Next problem; this time the train is headed toward the same five people.

A: …

B: Yes deaf musicians, with i-pods .. and now you’re standing on a footbridge over the tracks in between the oncoming train and the musicians. This time there’s no switch but you’re standing next to a large man, and the only way you can save these students is to push this big guy off of the bridge so that he’ll land on the tracks and stop the train with his heavy body, and the musicians will live. Still a maths problem?

A: Interesting… More difficult now… Perhaps it’s the fact that you’re so close to someone makes the difference? And you’ve got to physically push him? Or as Josh Greene would argue…. this time it activates the more primitive moral system whereas in the first scenario it’s more abstract, which activates the more rational, advanced system.

B: But, fundamentally it’s still a maths problem and the answer, logically, rationally, should be yes, – push them.

A: O.K. So what if there wasn’t a big guy around – would you jump on the track and sacrifice yourself? If it’s only a maths problem……..

B: Nice twist. Very interesting. Not sure Josh has thought of that.

A: As you may say on a training course … and so what? This isn’t likely to happen is it?

B: Well – glad you mentioned that. I came across an interview with that Josh Greene on this very subject.

A: As you do.

B: And he reckons there are everyday comparisons. For instance, you’re out walking by a shallow lake and spot a child who’s drowning. You could rush in and save this child very easily, but you’d ruin your new shoes. What would you do?

A: Ruin my shoes.

B: But they are brand new – cost you £30.

A: Ruin my shoes.

B: OK. What if you had an email from “Save The Children” saying “Please send us £30. We can save starving children in Africa who are badly in need of food and medicine. A small donation can save a life.”

A: Interesting.

B: Interesting.

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