Thinking About Thinking

Would You Press The Button?

Posted in Philosophy by larrycheng on May 13, 2009

Since this blog is named after my favorite class in college, as noted in my first post, it’s only appropriate that the second post be related to my second favorite class in college: Justice.  (I’m moderately surprised I still remember content from my college classes.)  Justice is a class that is offered once every three years and entails 1,000+ students engaging in moral debate and reasoning with Professor Michael Sandel.  There was one particular exercise that was uniquely memorable that I would like to replay here.

The overarching scenario is this: A high-speed train has a brake failure and is going out of control down a main railroad track.  Up ahead lies a fork to an alternate track.  You, and only you, can push a button to cause the train to move to the alternate track at the fork. Following are scenarios of what lies ahead after the fork.  Where an individual is involved, presume that that individual is stuck and if you send the train down their particular path, it will lead to their imminent demise.  The key question with each scenario is would you press the button?

Scenario 1

  • Main Track:  A railroad worker.
  • Alternate Track: No one.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 2

  • Main Track: A railroad worker.
  • Alternate Track: A young child.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 3

  • Main track: A young child.
  • Alternate Track: A railroad worker.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 4

  • Main Track:  A young child.
  • Alternate Track: A railroad worker passed out from getting drunk when he was supposed to perform routine maintenance on the brake of the train in question.  If he had done the work, the train would have functioned properly.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 5

  • Main Track:  A railroad worker who is on death row and is working there as part of prison labor work.  And your mom.
  • Alternate Track: A young child.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 6

  • Main track: You.
  • Alternate Track: A young child.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 7

  • Main track:  Nobel laureate 1 day away from finding the cure to cancer.  If he perishes, it will be 50 years until someone finds the cure.
  • Alternate Track:  You, your whole family, and every person you’ve ever cared for.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Obviously, the scenarios could have infinite variations (if you have a good one, would love to hear it).  But perhaps more important than whether you would press the button in any given scenario, is why you’d press the button.  If we could do this in a dialogue without the benefit of seeing all of the future scenarios, you would hear students argue adamantly in a given scenario that a certain principle is THE principle that should drive the decision.  But the very next scenario would undermine that student’s conviction on that principle as it gets a little more complicated – making consistency nearly impossible.  I thought this would be a fun way to start off this blog as it’s not that I’m looking for readers to give their decision and rationale for each scenario (though if any brave soul would like to try, go for it).  Rather, I think this exercise helps us to appreciate that we don’t have all the answers – which is often the starting point of a great discussion.