Dissection

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Just working through my own thought processes on this one. To quote the hypothetical case: You have two railway tracks, one disused, and one actively in use. On the active track are three kids playing, and one kid playing on the disused track. You are at the lever which allows the train tracks to switch between the two, and an incoming train alerts you to the fact that you may either have to kill one kid or three kids. What is your choice? I chose to sacrifice the one child.

The original entry was to illustrate how, by switching the train tracks to kill the one kid, you did a few “wrong things”: you rewarded bad / stupid behaviour (the kids shouldn’t have been playing on the active train tracks) by sacrificing one for the good of the many, and the possibility of a greater accident (the train overturning and endangering everyone). Finally, you can also be liable for legal repercussions if you actively change the lever, as opposed to watching like a helpless bystander as accidents occur. After some thought and discussion I have come to realize the analogy is somewhat flawed. Why do I say this?

The Rightness of Playing On Train Tracks

The framing of the question is interesting by itself. It is first presented with a simple ‘do you choose to sacrifice the individual for the majority’ question, with a 3-to-1 decision. The interesting part is that they paint ‘playing on disused train tracks’ to mean ‘safe & correct behaviour’, and therefore the 3 kids are stupid. This is the first error of the analogy: no child is ever encouraged to play on train tracks, abandoned or not. If you had rephrased the question to make you choose between 3 kids on the railroad and a child playing at a nearby amusement park, perhaps my answer would’ve differed. So the question of whether the one kid doing the ‘right thing’ is moot here: no one should’ve been playing at the train tracks.

External Variables

The other variables are also interesting – the number of passengers on board as well as the structural integrity of the railroad in the disused lane. The question is why wasn’t it asked earlier? If this was stated:

“You are at the lever which switches train tracks. There are three children in the way of the incoming train, which has 200 passengers on board. The disused lane you can switch the train to has not been used for 25 years, is thoroughly rusted, and has bolts coming apart in places. On it is one kid playing, oblivious to the train. Do you kill this kid at risk of endangering everyone?”

You might have a different answer out of me too. The omission of these details until you have chosen your answer smacks of an ethical gotcha. I might have just as well said that no matter your decision, the lever breaks and you end up watching three kids get mowed down anyway. Or that the kids were all paying attention to the train and got out of the way. The inability to tightly regulate those variables makes this analogy weaker.

Legal Implications

You can be legally sued for trying to help people but ending up in disaster (good intentions, bad consequences). So the way to stay blame-free in our particular situation is to watch all three kids die.  To use another example, though, if a small child is drowning in a pool and there’s a floatation device nearby, you just might be in breach of ‘actus reus‘ (latin: ‘guilty act’) if you do not toss the device in, for failing to act when it was your duty to. You will not be legally required to risk drowning to save someone, of course, but in our case you’d be in no forseeable danger, unless being near the switch itself constituted a dangerous situation. So yes, I think the situation is dire enough to require intervention.

Separately, some may say it is better to do nothing because you have made no decision to act. They forget that deciding to do nothing is in itself an active process. There are no helpless observers in this scenario, only people who decided to do nothing but watch the limbs fly.

Damn. 5am already.

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