Philosophers with Guns

| 12/28/2010 3:00:45 PM

West Point Cadets

On the modern battlefield, where civilians and combatants are often indistinguishable, and virtual warfare is increasingly common, soldiers are routinely required to grapple with life-changing (and potentially life-saving) moral dilemmas in a split second.

Prospect magazine reports that in an effort to establish a consistent code among U.S. troops caught in these ethical crosshairs, West Point is requiring that all of its officers-in-training take a course on “just war” theory, which includes a series of classic, academic conundrums rooted in the writings of philosopher and theologian, Thomas Aquinas.

The first scenario, which will be familiar to most college kids, is called Spur: A runaway train is hurtling towards five unsuspecting people. If you simply flip a switch you can send the train into a spur (a stretch railroad track reserved for loading and unloading) and save their lives. But one man is chained to the spur and will be killed. What would you do?

While you’re mulling that over, consider Fat Man: The same train (or trolley) is about to kill five people. You’re standing on a bridge over the tracks next to an overweight fellow. If you push him off the bridge his bulk would stop the train and save the endangered. The action will, however, kill the “fat man.”  Do you shove or don’t you?

According to Prospect writer David Edmonds, “study after study” has established that about 90 percent of people faced with these hypothetical questions could live with switching the train onto a spur, and roughly the same percentage believes it’s wrong to sacrifice the heavy guy.

Carl Skompinski
2/20/2012 8:51:23 PM

I think this is easy for me. Don't switch or push. Reason: My act would be deliberate. My actions have consequences as to the point of the story. But what if I pushed but pushed too late? The train keeps going and kills 6 people, my one act added to the kill count. The only thing that is certain is pushing the man off would kill him in either case or at best severely injure him. What's not to say that fate would not intervene and some of the five or all would be alerted and get out of the way on their own? Likewise with the shackled man. Say I flip the switch and it's faulty in some way or I can only partially switch it, and the train derails killing all the passengers? I would do all in my power not to do harm and help the five people.

2/2/2011 9:26:50 AM


JWT Meakin
1/3/2011 2:33:36 PM

I'm in the 10% who wouldn't switch the train. However, I think the question is badly posed. There is no such thing as being on a rail track "unaware". You are there as a result of a deliberate act, and you know that trains run on tracks. You are responsible for your own actions, and if you don't keep a lookout, guess what: you are crow breakfast.

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