Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Switcher's Dilemma

Sun through poplars

Graduate Room - Academy B & B
Imagine two people debating an age-old puzzle:

            It supposes you are standing at a junction where a spur line branches off the main line of a railroad and that you operate the switch. On the main line are five workers who can't possibly get off the track before a speeding train will arrive and they will be killed. On the spur line is a single man who likewise will be killed if you activate the switch and divert the train off the main line.

            What do you do?

            The one doesn't hesitate: the answer is clear; kill one man to save five; it's the right thing to do; it's simple arithmetic.  The other refuses to accept responsibility for any decision and says he would likely freeze or run from the situation. Still others might try to avoid the dilemma completely by arguing something stupid, like “I'd never be caught in that position because I don't work for the railroad,” or “How could they possible not get off the tracks when they realized the train was coming?”

            There are, of course, variations to the railroad switcher's dilemma: what if the single person on the spur line is not a man, but the switcher's young son playing on the tracks? Does that make a difference? What if the five men are known criminals trying to escape and the single person is a policeman pursuing them? Does that make a difference?

            Moral philosophy can begin with questions like the switcher's dilemma and when we debate possible answers, we are doing moral philosophizing. Heaven knows we're prone to run away from such questions and keep our fingers crossed, hoping we never find ourselves in such a situation. The fact is, the switcher's dilemma faces us in many ways, every day. In differing versions it haunts us (or should) when we spend a lot of money on a luxury knowing that while we could live without a certain extravagance, the same dollars could vaccinate a thousand children for polio, possibly save five lives.    
           Money is a switch we hold in our hands; we don't even have to “kill one to save five.”

            Debating the switcher's dilemma might even illuminate for us questions like pipelines for crude oil, yes or no. Tar sands development, yes or no. Suppose that human civilization continues on this earth for five more generations. That means that every single person now will be replaced in the future by at least five other people, give or take. Is it right to trade the future of the five for access to cheap energy for the one? In this case, I fear, we're deciding to kill the five, not for the life of the one, but for his pleasure and convenience!!

            It's not surprising that we don't like debating the switcher's dilemma; we want so much to be free of the responsibility for the switch that we'd rather clap our hands over our eyes and ears. (Not easy to do!) But the truth of the matter is that someone must always assume the switcher's responsibility.

            Unfortunately, our current government isn't good at moral philosophy.

            Meanwhile, the rest of us are whistling through the graveyard.

No comments:

Post a Comment