The Responsibility to Do Good: How far would you go to make the world a better place?

A+trolley+can+either+run+over+5+people+or+1+person+if+you+pull+a+lever.+What+would+you+do%3F

Fair Use Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

A trolley can either run over 5 people or 1 person if you pull a lever. What would you do?

“For the greater good.”

That phrase is hacked in stone over the entrance to the fortress of Gellert Grindelwald, a villain from the Harry Potter series. Bad guys since the dawn of time have adopted mottos similar to this one. They’ve always claimed that their ends justify their means. Good guys always seem to stop the unprincipled evildoers while adhering to a code of honor which doesn’t allow them to do certain things, making their victories even more impressive. But the question of ends and means isn’t limited to the comic book world, we encounter it every day. This column will seek to answer the question “is it sometimes necessary to do harm in the service of a good end?”

If you do nothing, five people will die. If you pull the lever, one person will die. Is it right to pull the lever and kill someone?”

— Riley Wheaton, Columnist

First, some philosophical framing. A trolley is whizzing down a track toward a fork. On the track toward which the trolley is heading there are five people tied such that the trolley will run over and kill them. You are standing near a lever which, if pulled, will cause the trolley to switch to the other track where there is one person tied. If you do nothing, five people will die. If you pull the lever, one person will die. Is it right to pull the lever and kill someone? This is the trolley problem and it has many variations. Some involve more direct action on the part of the bystander (like pushing a person in front of a trolley to stop it), some involve age differences, and some involve more complex scenarios with a second switch or a loop the loop. These tests are designed to explore how we view right and wrong. I’ve compiled a survey with five trolley problems for your enjoyment and curiosity. I’ll share any results I get with the school wide audience. As with most examples of Observatory audience involvement, there is a reward at the end of the survey, but it’ll also be cool to see how our school views these choices.

Now, is it right to kill someone to save others? Harry Potter kills Voldemort at the end of his final book, and if you were to ask him why he’d probably tell you that if he hadn’t then Voldemort would have gone on to kill again and again without end. His choice was whether to kill one person or allow that one person to kill hundreds of others. The choice to kill one person is an example of utilitarianism, or the philosophy that holds an action to be right if and only if it creates the most good and the least harm. One dead person seems to me like much less harm than hundreds dead. This method of choice, weighing outcomes based on least harm, is called utilitarianism or consequentialism.

Lying is wrong (maybe) but sometimes we must do it or we are directly responsible for harm in the world.”

— Riley Wheaton, Columnist

Utilitarianism stands opposed to moral absolutism, which is the belief that some actions are intrinsically right or intrinsically wrong. A moral absolutist might hold that stealing is wrong no matter what the circumstance. A moral absolutist lives by a list of things which are wrong and believes that the way to do right is to avoid doing these things. Batman is a moral absolutist who refuses to kill his enemies (in many interpretations, anyway) and the Joker returns and kills over and over again because of his choice.

So why does this utilitarian vs. absolutist argument matter on a daily basis? The odds that you’ll encounter six people tied to a trolley track are relatively low in this day and age. But trolleys take all kinds of forms in our daily lives. Imagine that you’re in front of Ms. Short and your friend has been drinking so much he’s been having blackouts. He’s in trouble and he’ll never ask for help. Ms. Short asks you “does your friend have a problem?” Many teenage moral absolutists would say that ratting on your friend is just wrong. It’s just wrong. But what if telling the truth that your friend has a problem can help that friend get better? You are faced with a choice.

Imagine two people (Riley and Beyoncé) date a little until one day Riley realizes that he’s lost interest in Beyoncé.”

— Riley Wheaton, Columnist

I was quoted in a New York Times article back in January on whether or not ten lies were justified. The article puts forward ten examples (of varying relatability) of a choice that many absolutists would consider totally wrong but which I didn’t. I wrote of several that “these lies increase happiness and diminish suffering, so are warranted.” Lying is wrong (maybe) but sometimes we must do it or we are directly responsible for harm in the world.

The final example I’ll present of a relatable trolley involves dating. Imagine two people (Riley and Beyoncé) date a little until one day Riley realizes that he’s lost interest in Beyoncé. Riley knows that Beyoncé’s done nothing wrong and knows that telling her he’s lost interest will upset her and make her feel inadequate etc. He decides not to tell her for several weeks. In the intervening weeks Beyoncé knows something is wrong and is tortured by worry and the same kind of inadequacy Riley had hoped to avoid. During that time Riley is also tortured by worry, guilt, and fear of what will happen if he tells Beyoncé. Eventually a friend of Riley’s tells Beyoncé what’s going on and Beyoncé is utterly devastated that Riley hadn’t told her and that he’d lead her on for weeks. Is it unkind to hurt someone? Absolutely. But in this case Riley’s unwillingness to hurt his partner ended up causing her (and him, in all likelihood) greater pain than just telling her immediately.

Every day when we walk through the halls we are moving through a scrum of whizzing trolleys and sometimes there are so many levers and so many tracks that it’s nearly impossible to find the right way through.”

— Riley Wheaton, Columnist

This spring has been a strange one for the part of my brain that does triage. I’ve always had to make choices about which piece of homework to do first and second etc. and, as almost any of my teachers can tell you, there have been times in my career when I’ve missed things. This fall I prioritized getting good grades because I felt it was important in order to get into the college I wanted, which would (I felt) would bring me a great deal of happiness. So I didn’t spend much time with friends. I decided that the consequences of social isolation, or of being unprepared for a rehearsal, or a whole host of other things were less important than getting good grades so I could get into my college. But this spring I realized that the consequences of doing poorly on a quiz or piece of homework are objectively less. Less by far than the consequences of shutting myself off from my friends or being unprepared for a rehearsal. The joy I hope to bring to an audience is more impactful than a third quarter quiz score. And enjoying my limited time with my friends is perhaps more important still. Is senior slide irritating? Yes. But I did it because I knew that it brought greater good and less harm.

This is not an argument we can hide from. Every day when we walk through the halls we are moving through a scrum of whizzing trolleys and sometimes there are so many levers and so many tracks that it’s nearly impossible to find the right way through. There are some people who could stand back from those choices and say merely “I have lived up to my moral code by refraining from taking actions I believe are wrong” when doing so means harm to the world. I couldn’t do it. I’d feel selfish choosing my moral superiority over the happiness or safety of others. Absolutism helps people sleep better at night, it can make decision making a lot easier, but we need utilitarians. Without them we’d never have had the civil rights movement which put children in harm’s way because they knew it’d mean greater good in the long run, we’d never make compromises in order to get important legislation passed, and everyone would behave like Inspector Javert of Les Miserables (Coming soon to a Huss Center near you).

So the next time someone asks you “do these pants make me look fat?” or the next time you have to choose between giving your all on a homework assignment or getting a good night’s sleep, or the next time a student comes to you and says “I can’t make this event” truly consider the consequences of each choice, good and bad. Don’t allow your thoughts to end with “this action makes me uncomfortable because it’s wrong.” That kind of thinking is lazy and selfish. Honestly weigh good and harm done.

Choose what creates the greatest good. Accept no shortcuts.