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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 01/19/2011

Story pick: If you could save five innocent people by killing one, would you?

By Steve Hendrix

I haven't let myself get too enmeshed in quandaries of moral equivalence since my last philosophy class, circa 1994. Maybe that's why I could bear this long look at how West Point cadets are readying themselves for combat by doing moral logic puzzles, the kind that make you confront the question of when it is acceptable to kill. (The piece appears in the British magazine Prospect and also links choices of life and death to heath care debates in that country and ours.)

The cadets are on their way to Aquinas's Just War theory, of course, and one of the puzzles they wrestle along that path is the classic "Trolley Problem." Remember? You have the power to divert a trolley that is barreling down on five people to another track, where it will kill only one. The writer, David Edmonds, also talks about the Moral Sense, a popular website maintained by a Harvard prof.

Here's a sample to ponder over breakfast:

You are a worker on a construction site, helping another worker to carry very long planks of wood along some scaffolding. Below you, five men are working to clear a deep trench before a very large mixer begins to fill it with cement. However, a timer malfunction has caused the mixer to release the cement early. If no one does anything, the cement will quickly fill the trench, killing the five workers. There is a pile of bricks on a trapdoor in the scaffolding immediately above the mixer. You could pull a lever to open the trapdoor. If you do so, the worker whom you have been assisting will also fall through the trapdoor to his death, but the bricks would stem the flow of cement enough to give the other five workers time to evacuate the trench.

Would you pull the lever?

By Steve Hendrix  | January 19, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
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If you pull that lever, you will be legally responsible for your coworker's death and could be charged. If you do not, there are not implications for you in the other five deaths.

Morality and legalities are not always compatible.

Posted by: debgrosner | January 19, 2011 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Is the coworker a Republican?

Hmmmm... I don't think you can pull the lever -- the coworker could pull the lever on himself -- fall on the grenade, as it were, but given the worker's total innocence (and bad luck) I think one cannot intervene... what is about to happen is a tragedy... s**t happens, as the saying goes. A better question, I think is... you're in a very small boat with your most beloved and favorite dog -- a stranger is drowning; you can only save the stranger by tossing out your dog --there is no room in the boat for both ... do you throw out your dog and save the stranger?

Of course you do.

Posted by: hasburgh | January 19, 2011 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Interesting question. Mathematically it seems very simple. I have the power to kill four or kill one. I should kill the one.
But, what if the one were a loved one of mine? Could I make the same decision? I doubt that I could.

This idea is rarely followed in the real world though. Firemen routinely place their lives in dangerous situations, some have died because of it, to save a single person trapped in a fire. Soldiers will risk more men and women rescuing a fallen comrade when the math says that they shouldn't.

Posted by: joeyj | January 19, 2011 10:27 AM | Report abuse

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