Hypothetical Moral Dilemma

I just finished reading this interesting article on moral principles. A Harvard researcher hypothesizes that evolution has provided us with a base moral compass. As evidence he offers these three intriguing questions on morality.

Question One:

A trolley is coming down a track and it’s going to run over and kill five people if it continues. A person standing next to the track can flip a switch and turn the trolley onto a side track where it will kill one person but save the other five. Is is morally permissible to flip the switch?

If you answered yes, then you have responded the way that most people do – they feel it’s morally permissible to harm one person when five are saved.

Question Two:

A nurse comes up to a doctor and says “Doctor, we’ve got five patients in critical care; each one needs an organ to survive. We do not have the time to send out for organs, but a healthy person just walked into the hospital – we can take his organs and save the five. Is that OK?”

Not surprisingly, no one says yes to this question.

Question Three:

What’s the difference between these two situations?

According to the Harvard professor, people of different ages, people of different religious backgrounds, people of different educations typically cannot explain why those cases differ. He proposes that there is some sort of hard wired unconscious process at work during moral judgments.

I found that quite intriguing and I certainly couldn’t rationally distinguish between the two hypothetical situations.

If you are interested, here’s the online version of the article.

5 Replies to “Hypothetical Moral Dilemma”

  1. I can distinguish between the two. The first scenario allows a disconnect; the “sixth” victim remains anonymous, unknown, unable to resist one’s decision to sacrifice him/her, and the person that makes the decision remains anonymous as well. In the second scenario the “sixth” victim would be able to resist. One would need to actively assert one’s decision upon an unwilling participant. Thus, responsibilty (or guilt) becomes more directly connected to the decision.

    Morality is a social judgement, after all.

  2. Perhaps – but isn’t someone that just walked into the hospital as anonymous as someone who just happened to be standing on the alternate trolley track? And if you walked up behind the person and put a bullet in the back of his head, how much resisting could he do? And isn’t throwing the trolley switch also “actively asserting one’s decision on an unwilling participant”?

    If we need to make the scenario a little more disconnected, would things change if the nurse poisoned a beverage in the ER vending machine and let chance choose who imbibed the fatal cocktail.

  3. Valid points, but part of what contributes to the disconnect is a lack of premeditation. Split-second decision, “I just reacted”,…. no guilt.

  4. I think you’re missing one point. In the first scenario you would actively try to save the “sixth” victim. As you threw the switch you would instinctively be screaming for that person to get out of the way. Whether he could hear you or not, you would have made an attempt to save him…therefore, no guilt. You wouldn’t be doing that in the second scenario.

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