A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen. Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large. The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below where his large body will stop the trolley. The stranger will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved.
Moral puzzles like this have been of increasing interest lately not only in the field of ethics, but in neurobiology as well. Scientists watch images of brain activity in people who are pondering this kind of issue to see what they can learn about the biological basis of the human conscience.
You know me: I'm always trying to help. So, here's my contribution to the field of moral intelligence.
The boat is sinking!
There is but one life raft, and you are the only one with the maritime skills and experience to make survival on the open seas possible. Regrettably, the life raft can only hold three people and there are four of you on the sinking boat: you, and three other passengers.
Which two will you save, and which one's terrified screams, pleading, and whimpers, still somehow audible over the storm as you row away from the sinking hulk into the night, will forever afterwards haunt your sleep?
Passenger #1 - A pleasant, slightly overweight man of thirty-five, friendly, conservative, and forgetful, a construction worker for a commercial contracting company. If he survives the current crisis, he will only live two more years. During that time, he will have four girlfriends, all of whom he will unwittingly infect with a sexually transmitted disease that will render them sterile and eventually, in their old age, blind. One of the four sometimes cheats on him with another man, and will infect him with the disease; this man, who is quite promiscuous, will in turn infect an additional 31 women.
Your passenger will die (in two years, as I mentioned) by falling six stories off of scaffolding onto a busy street. He will land on and crush a small dog, the only companion of a lonely old woman, who will subsequently slip into a depression that will last until her death seven years later. A promising young athlete who sees him fall will develop a post-traumatic disorder and lose his interest in basketball; where he would have had a stellar career, entertaining millions, commanding an enormous salary, and becoming a highly visible spokesperson on issues of social justice, he instead has a religious conversion, goes to seminary, and becomes a much loved small-town pastor, remembered for decades as a man who provided comfort, support, and guidance to three generations of parishioners. Finally, a bus driver who sees your passenger plunge to his death will, in the aftermath of the incident, decide to go back to school and study medicine; she will have a solid but undistinguished career as a urologist. She will not, therefore, be driving during a freak April blizzard two years later. In this storm, she would have lost control of her bus and plunged off of a bridge into a railyard, an accident in which she and 23 bus passengers would have perished, as well as 156 passengers on a passenger train which could not have stopped in time to avoid the fallen bus lying across the tracks.
Passenger #2 - A beautiful little girl of twelve, cheerful, polite, and sweet, an honor student and piano prodigy. If she lives, she will go on to win a prestigious youth piano competition at sixteen; the second-place contestant, unhinged by the competition, will go on a shooting rampage at his school, killing nine before turning his gun on himself. In the aftermath of this event, school districts all over the country will divert funds from classroom education to school security.
In college, your young passenger will study biochemistry; when she is 35, she will isolate a compound that will add an average of three years to the human lifespan; in two of those added years, on average, people will be active and in good health, but in the third year, must people will be confined to their bed and beset by fatigue and mild chronic pain. Her first husband will die after two years of marriage in a car accident; afterwards, she will go through many brief and unsatisfying relationships without ever really feeling "in love" again. She will be unintentionally cold and aloof towards her daughter, who reminds her of her late husband; however, her heart will be broken again when the daughter, at age 16, runs away with a banker in his 40s and refuses to reestablish contact thereafter. Famous as a scientist for her great breakthrough, she will nevertheless gradually lose the respect of her peers when she fails to produce any further work of significance; most members of the general public will assume she died long ago. She will live to be 96, spending her final three decades battling poverty, alcoholism, and increasing ill health.
Passenger #3 - A leering, arrogant man of 60, argumentative, condescending, and openly racist, who describes himself as a "soldier of fortune." He is, in fact, a hired killer; he has committed more than twenty murders for money, in addition to six which he has committed for his own enjoyment. If he lives, he will commit one more murder, after which he will be caught, tried, and sentenced to death. In prison, he will be successfully treated for acute schizophrenia, find religion, and become sincerely repentant and remorseful for the pain he has caused; after three years, he will be executed.
That one man he will murder if he survives the current crisis is one of the world's preeminent brain surgeons, who at the time of his potential murder is scheduled to remove a tumor from the brain of an Eastern European dictator. Without the operation, the dictator will die, and therefore will not implement a plan of ethnic cleansing in which 450,000 will be relocated and impoverished and 32,000 will die; among the dead will be a little boy who would otherwise have grown to be the universally-recognized greatest painter of the century, twin sisters who would have won the Eurovision Song Contest at age 17, and a young man who would have eventually lead a successful campaign to have the World Cup held every three years, instead of every four.
Who do you save? Discuss.