One of the basic tenets of Rawls’ philosophy is “an idea of the right rather than an idea of the good.” This means that the rights of members of a society should never be infringed upon in order to bring about some good for those citizens or others. Reading this made me think back to a hypothetical scenario that I had been confronted with some time ago. There are different versions but the one I’ll be discussing goes like this: You are standing next to a line of railroad tracks. Down the line, you see five men standing on the tracks. You also see a train coming down the line that the five men are unaware of. There is a sixth man standing next to you off the track. If you push the man onto the tracks, he will be run over and killed by the train but the train will stop and spare the other five men standing farther down the line (in other versions you could flip a switch sending the train down a different track which the sixth man is standing on, these have the same effect). If you do nothing, the train will continue and kill the five men standing on the tracks, but the sixth third man will be spared. In other words, would you consciously kill one man in order to save five?
Taking the previous quote from Rawl’s it seems pretty clear that he would choose to do nothing and allow the five men on the track to be killed. This is because pushing the sixth man onto the tracks would be murder and infringing on the man’s right to life. Rawls would argue that the right (not murdering the man) is more important than the good (saving a greater number of lives). In my scenario (slightly different from the picture, sorry), no one is infringing on the rights of the men on the track, they are simply victims of misfortune.
It is my belief that writers such as Rousseau and Marx would be more likely to say that pushing the sixth man onto the tracks is the best course of action. For Rousseau, this is because in any situation, the solution is that which contributes most toward the “general will” and this would necessarily be that which keeps the greatest number of people alive. Marx might say that everyone should be treated equally, so clearly five lives are more valuable than one and so the one man should be sacrificed in order to save the five.
When I first heard this scenario I initially said that I would push the sixth man onto the tracks. However, after reading many of these works I was forced to consider what a society that based on this decision would look like. In this society, rights are only respected until the needs of others trump them. There would be a huge list of people who needed organ transplants and the second that you became a match for two of them you would be killed in the name of the greater good, for your death and organs could save two others. This conclusion wasn’t comfortable for me and forced me to agree with Rawl’s. Who would be productive in a society in which you could be taken away at any given moment?
What do you think? Do you agree with my analysis of where the different philosophers would fall with regard to the scenario? Do you believe that the society based solely on the greater good could still function? Could some choice exist between the two given? Maybe you wouldn’t push the man to save five others, but what about 10? 100?