Would you kill 1 person to save 5 others?
You are walking alongside a train track. A loud whistle blow to your ears, you turn around and see a train approaching. The train track in front of you splits in two and the train is fast approaching the left track.
You notice that 5 people are tied to the left track and 1 person on the right track. You don’t have enough time to untie any of them but you see a lever near you which can flip the direction of the train to the right lane.
The question is, will you pull the lever to save 5 people and killing 1 in the process or will you let the train go on its original course, killing 5 people but saving the one?
This is one of the few questions which can reveal a lot about a person. It can tell us about the person’s thinking process, how he comes to a decision, what kind of reasoning he uses to justify his actions, and what kind of ethical values does the person keeps.
Most of you would choose to pull the lever.
Let’s analyze the situation in a neutral way. There are two possible outcomes of this scenario, Pulling the lever and not pulling the lever.
What does it say about you if you decide to pull the lever?
If you choose to kill 1 person instead of 5, it means that you tend to think rationally. You observed that an accident was unavoidable so you decided to minimalize the damage. All the individuals in the above scenarios are strangers to you, all of their lives hold equal value. So, choosing to save the lives of 5 people over 1 makes sense. You are reducing the grief caused to the close ones of the victims by 4/5, the so-called “greater good”.
Mathematically it makes sense, but is it morally right to take away the life of 1 person who was not originally in harm’s way?
What does it say about you if you decide not to pull the lever?
If you choose to kill 5 person over 1 person, it means that maybe you are emotionally aroused. You got freezed when thinking of pulling the lever. It was too overwhelming for you to pull the lever and harm that one person who is not in the harm’s way.
Mathematically it may not make sense but morally you did nothing wrong. It was never your responsibility to do anything to save anyone.
What would I do?
If I am in the same situation, I will not pull the lever. Contrary to what I said above, I think I can justify my actions in another way. I believe every individual has a right of non-interference i.e. he is not obliged to act. If I do not pull the lever, 5 people will die but I won’t be responsible for it as it was not my job to save them. But if I pull the lever, I will deliberately try to end 1 individual’s life to save 5 others. This means that I will be fully responsible for what happens to that 1 individual.
If I pull the lever and kill that 1 person, it will always haunt me that it was my action that caused his death. Different questions would arise in my mind that if I could have done anything to save him. After all there is a difference between killing and letting die.
What is the ideal solution?
Would you kill 1 person to save 5 others? I don’t believe an ideal solution exists for this problem. There are no rights and wrongs in this. You can always justify your actions. This problem is not to evaluate whether you are right or wrong, rather it provokes your thinking process. And anything you do is arguably the right thing to do.
In the end, I would like to quote a line from the American series Suits. “What are your choices when someone puts a gun to your head? You take the gun, or you pull out a bigger one. Or, you call their bluff. Or, you do any of a hundred and forty-six other things but you don’t give in.