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I was reading a book the other day in which a character posed a classic philosophical moral dilemma; you are standing by a train rail switch and a train is coming down the tracks at high speed, you see that there are 10 adults standing on the tracks to the right and a baby in a carriage parked on the rail to the left. No matter which way the train goes it is going to run into one or the other and obviously, kill them. Which way do you throw the switch? I posed the question to my 16 year old son, Chuck.
“I’d yell at the 10 people to get the heck off of the track,” he said.
I told him that he couldn’t do that because he was too far away and the train was too noisy and they wouldn’t hear him.
“How fast is the train going and how far away is it?” He asked.
I told him that it was going fast enough and was close enough so that his only option was to decide and throw the switch.
“Are there people on the train?” He inquired.
“What difference does that make?” I asked.
“Well, I just wanted to know if I might accidentally kill anyone when I derail the train.”
I asked him how he proposed to derail a large train barreling down the tracks. He replied that he would throw something in front of it.
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “If there were anything big enough to derail a train lying around and you were strong enough to heave it on the tracks you would be Superman, in which case you could just stop the train yourself seeing as how you’d be stronger than a locomotive. Besides, you can’t derail the train. You have to choose.”
“What are those stupid people doing on the tracks anyway/” He asked with disgust. “Are they having a cocktail party on the train tracks or something? And who does that baby belong to and what kind of an idiot thinks that its a good idea to park a baby on train tracks anyway?”
I could see that he was missing the entire point of a philosophical question based upon a ridiculous, irresolvable dilemma. I told him that none of the details mattered; the only thing that was meaningful to the question was what he would do. Spare the 10 adults or save the baby?
“I hate this question,” he stated. “This question is stupid, the scenario is absurd, and it makes me uncomfortable.”
I told him that generally, in questions of this sort, the point of them is exactly that, to put us in a very uncomfortable place, force us to examine the moral implications and make a decision in a no-win situation.
He was obviously not happy with that. “There are perfectly valid justifications for going either way with this. Its impossible to decide.”
“Well,” I shrugged. “It is probably a question of deciding if the life of a baby is worth the lives of 10 adults.”
“Maybe the baby will grow up and become an engineer and design a system of long range sensors that tell the train that there is an obstruction on the tracks so that the train automatically slows down and stop,” he suggested.
“On the other hand,” I countered, “maybe the baby will grow up to be a larcenous hedge fund manager who defrauds hundreds of people or the brutal dictator of a small African nation who murders thousands, and maybe one of the adults is on the verge of the very invention you are talking about.”
“No way,” he answered. “Anybody designing sensors for a train to alert it to something on the tracks wouldn’t be stupid enough to stand around with 9 other people sipping martinis on them. I’m sorry, I’m going with Captain Kirk with this one, I don’t believe in doomsday or no-win scenarios. I’d figure out a way to cheat.”
Well! So much for that philosophical ethical dilemma. Whatever philosopher dreamed it up obviously never counted on the powerful counter-philosophy of Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. In his world, he could just beam up the people and the baby and Bob’s your uncle, no more moral dilemma. Warp 5 Mr. Sulu.
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