It's a beautiful day in the city. The sun shines brightly upon the world, an occasion that a citizen rarely experiences. You stroll down the sidewalk with a skip in your step. Everything is as it should be; you possess barely a care.
Yet suddenly you hear the wail of a girl, and your ears perk up like those of a dog. As you continue to hear the scream you swear to hearing even more, calling out for help. You are no superhero, but you run to find what is all the commotion. You sprint down the path to come across a switch, the kind of which is used to rearrange train tracks and such. And beyond this switch you discover the source of the yelling: five people, lying out on the street. You wonder why there are doing so, until you examine further, to find that every one of them is bound hand and foot, unable to rise from the asphalt. They are forced to stay where they lie, right atop two thin divots that you aren't sure what are for.
You are about to advance immediately, and save these people from their plight. But all of a sudden you hear yet another sound, a tone piercing to the ear. To your right a trolley is barreling down the street, moving much more quickly than it should. At the speed it is rolling, it will not have time to brake. You panic, at a complete loss of what to do. The trolley is about to run over innocent people, and there is nothing you can do about it.
You avert your eyes back to the switch, and then back at he scene. On the path of the vehicle there is a fork, one leading to four of the victims, and the other leading to only one. The way the track is set, the trolley will plow through the helpless four. But if you so choose, you can use the switch to change its path. This action will save the four, but then endanger the sole one.
You have a choice, and your time is running out. Save four, or one?
You place your hands on the metal rod, and just as the trolley zooms toward the fork, and as the citizens scream even louder than before, you—
What do you do? Do you save the many four, or the lonely one? Really think about it. Think long and hard if you must.
Well, how do you like your answer? Are you content with what you decided?
I doubt it actually.
Your action will cause someone to die, no matter what you do. Death is inevitable. But is there a right choice to this scenario? Is it best to choose to save the many by sacrificing the few? Or perhaps even vice versa?
Let me try something.
You are a pilot, and you are flying a plane toward a designated destination. Whether you have decided to transport people or equipment or et cetera, you may decide for yourself. But suddenly an alarm goes off, and you realize that your fuel tank is leaking. You can't keep the plane up in the air much longer, and you're hurtling right for a highly populated city. People are going to perish where your plane crashes; you cannot prevent it. But you notice that close by there is a town, much less populated than the city. With the fuel and altitude you have left at your disposal, you have the choice of where to crash. What do you do?
You see what I have done? A very similar situation, yet a bit different. Casualties are again unavoidable, but you must decide who receives it. Will it be the many in the city, or the few in the town? Or reverting back to the former, will it be the four, or the one?
I am no psychic, no fortune teller, nor am I right behind you reading your thoughts. Wouldn't that be creepy? Anywho, as I am none of these things, all I can do is guess. Both feel wrong, without denial. But whether you agree with it in the end or not, the correct decision seems to be to pull the switch. Thus sparing the four, and dooming the one.
Interesting, is it not?
Why is that? Why do we think that saving four is far more crucial than saving one? Is it based on how much we, as individuals, value life? Are lives considered just a matter of numbers, and the more we save the more justice we carry out?
Oh dear. I have asked much too many questions. No matter.
Think about this. Is the overall importance of one life less than that of four? In this scenario, is it justifiable to pull the switch in order to save a larger number of lives?
Well, what if I did this:
Her name was Kate.
Kaitlin Mae Jefferson. Born in Springfield, Illinois on April 19, 1994. Belonging to a family of five, the middle child between two brothers. Kate had traveled to the city to meet with a university. She had been playing the French horn ever since she was in middle school, and she was quite talented at it as well. In fact, she had been on her way to the building to see if they were going to offer her a scholarship, and she had been just a few blocks away from her destination. She couldn't wait to see the looks on her parents' faces when she told them she was accepted. Of course, if she was accepted. But she was confident, perhaps too confident. Kate's spirits were as high as the clouds, as she slightly-skipped toward the building, her instrument's case swinging at her side. When she was suddenly hit over the head with something very hard. And now, as she lies immobile on the road, she begins to realize that perhaps she isn't going to get that scholarship.
Now what do you say?
Do you still flip the switch?
Maybe the reason so many consider numbers to be everything is because that is just what the people seem to be. But now, not only does this poor individual have a name, she has a birthdate, a family, a hobby, and a potential future. Yes, you would be saving the four, but you would be killing Kate too.
Does this make you uncomfortable?
I understand that.
Do you feel like a terrible human being?
Understandable as well.
However don't be. After all, this isn't actually happening to you. This is a scenario, and I am merely the storyteller; a puppet master, if I may. I pull the strings of the story, changing things and whatnot as I see fit.
But enough of that. You did not desire to hear of my abilities.
Instead, let me touch on yet another issue.
What if you didn't pull the switch? Well, logically that would mean that the four would be run over and killed, and the one (or shall we say Kate) would be spared. But hold on a moment, Dear Reader. Would it be wrong to say that because you did nothing—you did not participate in the incident in any way—that you were not involved in their deaths? The tragedy was not your fault? You were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and weren't obligated to do anything at all?
Yet there is an opposition to everything, a fact that is most valid of the universe. Would it be incorrect to say that since you were present at the scene—indeed merely in the wrong place at the wrong time—that you were involved? Because you were there and had the ability to do something, you are by all means responsible?
Which is it then? What is correct?
That is a choice left up to you. It is not one for me to decide.
How sad that you have to be placed in this terrible situation. To have this burden put upon your shoulders.
So let me pull at the strings.
You're on your way back home after a long day at work. Along the route you cross over a bridge, which spans across a barren city street. At least at first glance it seems barren. But halfway across the bridge you hear yelling and screaming. You turn your head to the left, to find upon the street yet again, four helpless citizens, bound hand and foot. Behind you the squealing of metal grows louder and louder, as a trolley zooms down the road. These four people are about to be run over, innocent and afraid. But an idea comes to mind. Perhaps if something heavy is placed in front of the trolley, it would slow to a halt, and the people would be saved. You scan your surroundings frantically in search of a heavy object. Until your eyes rest upon a man, quite stout at the waist, standing near to you atop the bridge. You had noticed him before, but at the time he had seemed unimportant. Now however, as he leans over the railing, he might be these victims' only hope.
By now I believe you have gotten the picture.
You have opportunity to redeem the lives of these four people, yet at the cost of a potentially unfortunate bystander. So, do you walk up behind the man and push him over the edge, thus stopping the runaway trolley? Or do you resort to sparing him, and view the gory demise of four innocent people?
Now now, calm down, Dear Reader. I am not a sad and lonely human being, nor am I a psychotic neerdowell. Do you realize how similar this scenario is to the first? Four people are in danger, and at the cost of one life theirs can be saved. It's the same premise, but somehow, it's not.
Well, it feels like it's not.
And why, you may ask? Let me try to explain.
When you are asked whether or not to pull the switch, the underlying action in itself is not harmful. Switching trolley tracks isn't an action intended for evil. You aren't the one directly killing Kate; that would be the trolley's doing. So perhaps when you carry it out you feel as if the one victim's death isn't entirely your fault. However when you consciously and physically shove a human off a bridge and in the way of a moving vehicle, what you have done was intentional on all accounts. Try explaining yourself out of that lawsuit.
So while in the first situation it seems that taking action is the correct option, in the second it feels best to not do anything at all.
Well, what if I added a little something? A pinch of variation, a dash of story. Let us see what you think now.
What if this stout man beside you was, in fact, the ruthless lowlife that placed those people where they are? Imagine him chuckling to himself as he inspects his work, smiling a terrible smirk of content. The victims strapped to the road are but a show to him, and you and he are the only ones present to watch the program.
My, things have certainly changed, haven't they?
So think to yourself, do you push him off the bridge?
Before it was difficult to justify the shove, but now it seems as if it might be your duty. This man has done a horrible thing, a misdemeanor that should merit him some kind of penalty. And what better way to give him what he deserves than use him to save those he endangered?
Of course, why would I say that? This is not a statement of my thoughts. It is to be one on your own.
What do you think? Does this big-boned villain get what's coming to him, in order to save those he has doomed? Or do you decide that you would rather not become a killer yourself?
Oh wait. I didn't say that.
Or did I?
Huh. Quite an impasse, wouldn't you say?
But really, why do I tell you all of this? Why must I pull the puppet strings and twist a story to my will? Who do I think I am, asking you all these harmless yet uncomfortable questions?
Do I think that I'm some sort of god? A deity with the power and ability to do such things? That I am beyond the boundaries of right and wrong, good and evil? Asking questions of others that I refuse to answer myself?
Not at all, dear reader.
I am not a god.
I am no deity.
And I am well within the boundaries of right and wrong.
I am human. And you are as well. And as humans we encounter forks in our path. Yes, physically so, but I mean in life. I pray that these scenarios never happen, ever. Yet Life has its own plans; it decides where it will twist and turn. One day you may find yourself in a similar situation, or perhaps in one of no likeness at all. Nevertheless you must choose what to do. But unlike in the real world, you may discard everything I have said, forget all I have asked you. You are allowed to never decide what you would do in my little puppet stories.
And to tell you a secret, I haven't answered them either.
These stories are not mine. I use them as examples, but they were spawned from intelligent men and women many years ago. A question of philosophy and ethics, the test of humanity's morals and how far they are willing to go. People's longing to do what is right, and what the mind will tell them is right, even when they know it isn't.
Because there is no right answer. Pull the lever and kill one or do nothing and kill four? Crash your plane into a big city or a small town? Push a man off of a bridge to save four, whether he is a criminal or not? They sound ridiculous, don't they? They might, but that isn't why they were created. Forget how unrealistic you tell yourself that they are, and put yourself in the story. How would you respond to the situation? Is it really worth it to redeem the lives of many at the cost of a few? That is what the underlying question really is, at its bare-bones.
And that is it.
There isn't really more I can say.
For the rest of it is up to you.
You, Dear Reader.
Who am I to say what is right and wrong? While I relish in my role as puppeteer, I am only human, after all. The method you use to conclude what has been said, is also your choice.
But before you are free from my little show, I would like your attention for one last bout.
Now, imagine this...
You open your eyes.
Before everything had gone dark, but now the afternoon sun blares into your vision. You lift your hand to block it out.
Or at least that's what you try to do. Your hand stays where it rests, right at your side. Your are confused as to why, but that seems to be the least of your concerns at the moment. On each side of you lies a person, a young man to your left, and an older woman to your right. The man is grunting and struggling to stand, and the woman is weeping uncontrollably. You look down at yourself to find out why you seem restrained, only to find that you are, in fact, restrained. Try as you might you are trapped, stuck to the ground like a piece of gum.
Suddenly a screech sounds from beyond, and you whip your head around to find the source. Quite a ways away a trolley speeds down the tracks, moving surprisingly quickly. It shows no sign of stopping, and you realize that it isn't going to brake. You feel faint, as your life is about to disappear. A scream comes from above you. Or rather, a few yards from your head. You can't crane your neck to see, but you estimate that there is another victim in your similar plight. You all have seconds until your deaths, and there is nothing you can do about it.
You are able to crane enough to find a teenager on the sidewalk, standing beside a switch. A switch that you know can safe your life and those beside you. You silently rejoice; you're saved! However, the kid doesn't place his hand on the metal rod, and you wonder why. The clock ticks as the trolley rolls closer, and the track is still facing you. And you start to panic. That kid...is not going to save you. You're done, dead as a doornail. Your life is over, and there isn't anything you can do about it.
And this time there really isn't.
So you wait for the end, as the vehicle grows nearer to you all, and your fellow prisoners scream in terror.
And you close your eyes.
You don't want to see.
I'm sorry, Dear Reader. I am.
Though I hope you understand the intention.
That the people in peril are not numbers. Nor are they points, and the more you save the better score you get. No, they are people. They have lives. They have families. The have hobbies, talents, favorite colors, potential, a future, and so much more.
They are like you.
If you were tied down to the road like they, what would you want that bystander by the switch to do? What would be going through your mind as the trolley came close and closer?
And maybe that was what you had originally thought.
Maybe your mind had already gone there.
And maybe that might have made my questions that much harder.
I don't expect you to have an answer. Not at all. Then I would be a hypocrite. But when considering what I have said, and what these amazing people many generations ago have devised, know what is at stake. Really know what is on the line. Lives; special, individual, unique, and loved lives. Just realize the importance of life, and how upset you would be if you knew that yours was about to end. And there was nothing you could do about it.
And thus, my show ends here.
There are no more strings left to pull. I retire my role as puppeteer.
Now, I leave the interpretation up to you. For in the end, that is really all that matters.