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Pushing a person in front of a minecart to save five

  1. Oct 21, 2011 #1
    So, I'm reading "The Big Questions" by Steven E. Landsburg, and when he talks about whether it is right or not to push someone in front of a minecart to save five other people, that there was a moral obligation to sacrifice one. Also, in the movie Unthinkable, a similar situation is presented. I suppose I am somewhat of a mix between a Unitarian and a deontologist, but I just don't understand the point of a mathematical morality. The most happiness for the most people? I'm not sure I really see the point. Suffering in just one person, is still suffering. And is it better for five people to feel slightly bad or for one person to feel completely horrible?

    I guess I'm going to ramble a little bit in this, just to vent all my questions and views about this. For example, what is the goal of morality, happiness or progress of society? I don't know if I would be willing to let one person die so that five may live, but I may be willing to let one person die so that we have a cure for cancer... or even if it brought us more efficient technology; however, I would feel more guilty about letting the person die than by passing up the chance for new technology (even the cure for cancer). Due to this guilt, I would assume that I would be going against my views on morality, but then wouldn't most people feel more guilty killing someone directly, than indirectly letting five people die?

    I feel that, currently... and I may change my mind later, that the best option for a moral choice is the one that makes us feel less guilty. Of course, there is the problem of people who feel no guilt, so maybe I should rephrase what I mean by stating: I think people should take the route that avoids them directly causing negative outcomes to happen. This means that you can kill someone (or more than one) if they are threatening the life of an innocent person, but you cannot kill an innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people. So, I suppose I'm a utilitarian that refuses to make sacrifices for the "greater good".

    EDIT: Is it better to kill five drifters than it is to kill one person with a big family that will miss them?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 21, 2011 #2
    yeah, it's not really the way people work, is it? perhaps they'd draw straws. or maybe they'd be more creative. maybe 6 people are strong enough to stop one minecart. and in japan, you've got what, old guy volunteering to sacrifice themselves?
  4. Oct 21, 2011 #3
    IMHO a decision to sacrifice oneself to save another, or others, or w/e should be the decision of the person doing the sacrifice and no-one elses. You don't get to sit in your high place and say "it is better that this person dies to save those 5 other people". Let him make that choice, and if you think he isn't moving fast enough, sacrifice yourself if you think it is necessary, moral, whatever.

    You don't get the Medal of Honor for pushing someone in front of a minecart, you get one posthumously for jumping in front of it yourself.

    It's not an equation, 5 people on the LHS, 1 person on the RHS. It's a question of one's own morals and what you are prepared to do for others in extreme circumstances.
  5. Oct 21, 2011 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    This is called the "trolley problem", and it was first proposed by Phillipa Foot in the late 1960's or early 1970's. It's a classic set of ethics problems, although the one you describe is more like The Fat Man of Judith Jarvis Thomson.
  6. Oct 21, 2011 #5


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    What about different 'value' weights for the different people. Compare and contrast (taking recent events):

    1 Qaddafi, 5 toddlers

    1 toddler, 5 Qaddafis

    [EDIT: For completeness, I should add the obvious choice:

    1 Qaddafi, 0 toddleres ]
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2011
  7. Oct 21, 2011 #6
    This is a physics forum, so any answers should be scientific. I say we grab Mr Landsburg, be prepared to push him in front of the cart, and then ask for his answer. Of course, we would have to reproduce the experiment a statistically significant number of times, but I'm sure we can find plenty of people who believe the question is worth answering.
  8. Oct 21, 2011 #7


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    This really comes down to a question of whether it's better to kill some through some active measure or some passive measure. The decision is there regardless of which choice you make, simply because you were the person that wound up in the position to make a decision.

    You choose to kill five people by a passive measure or you choose to kill one person by an active measure. Choosing the passive measure doesn't mean you didn't make a decision one way or the other.

    But it is human nature that people believe choosing not to act means they escaped responsibility for making a decision.
  9. Oct 22, 2011 #8
    Sorry, couldn't resist :tongue:

  10. Oct 22, 2011 #9
    How much more is a live human being worth than a dead one?
  11. Oct 22, 2011 #10
    I don't believe that it's true morality so much as weighing the benefit of how one 'feels' after making such a decision.

    That is, the real question is what makes the decision-maker feel best afterward. I think people are hesitant to 'save the 5 people' because the amount of self esteem at risk is much greater when they take direct action in ending someones life.
  12. Oct 22, 2011 #11
    Sure, provided it's yourself. If you don't want to do that, don't chicken out and make someone else die in your place. At least have the guts to live with doing nothing resulting in the deaths of five others when you could have made a difference.

    Every other way of looking at this situation is little more than a philosophical exercise.

    Well, except for one: It's not difficult to derail a mine cart. One need not throw themselves or another in front of it!
  13. Oct 22, 2011 #12
    What about pushing Steven E. Landsburg in front of the trolley? Guy obviously is a sadist for putting five innocent people in a trolley, an innocent man to be sacrificed, and you to feel guilty for the rest of your live. Down with Steven, I say!
  14. Oct 22, 2011 #13


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    Never mind the other 5; I'd push the guy just for fun.
  15. Oct 22, 2011 #14


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    Pushing a person in front of a minecart is using another person as a means to an end: namely saving five people.

    This is not a moral act. Necessary some might say, but not moral.
  16. Oct 22, 2011 #15
    I agree somewhat, but not on the conclusion. I mean, either God meant it to be this way, in which case I think he must have meant for the people to die. Or the five are just plain stupid by allowing themselves to be killed so easily, and the strongest must survive, so those five must die by Darwinism.

    Anyway, if I democratically assign weights to the opinions, your mathematical opinion is voted out by God and Darwin. Let them die.

    [ Anyway, I find it just an absurd reduction. ]
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 22, 2011
  17. Oct 22, 2011 #16
  18. Oct 22, 2011 #17
    Same. Just have a beer and let the five die. Problem solved.

    [ Anyway, that was the short answer for: If there is no right course of action, you don't do anything. ]
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 22, 2011
  19. Oct 22, 2011 #18
    That's the whole point behind the organ donor program.
  20. Oct 22, 2011 #19
    I don't like situations where consequences/outcomes are absolute/fixed (such as these). I mean the world just doesn't work that way.
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