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