The Good, The Right, and The Train

November 28, 2011

Political action, Political Theory


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?

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6 Comments on “The Good, The Right, and The Train”

  1. ymsyed Says:

    This is an extremely interesting scenario. I believe that I would do nothing, but only because I would not be able to decide what do to. Psychologically, I find actively participating in the murder of one man to be nearly as bad if not worse that passively watching the death of 5. I am unsure what stance I would take.

    As far as your interpretations, I agree with all of them except Rawls. Using the same passage as you, I feel that one could argue that you are denying the right of the 5 people on the railroad to live by not killing the single individual. Violating the rights of 5 individuals seems worse than violating the rights of one.

    I also think it is interesting that you consider how many people it would take for someone to decide it worthy to kill the single individual. Again, I am unsure how many it would take for me to decide to kill the single individual.

  2. ngamin1614 Says:

    Man, what a tough question. It took a lot of thought before I could figure out which action I would take, and I’m honestly still not sure. Personally, I would unfortunately watch the 5 dudes on the train tracks die. When you think about this situation with only logic, it will always seem that saving the five people would be the appropriate course of action because 5>1. However, once we add in other things other than logic you start to think about this issue in a different way. I personally could never knowingly kill somebody. It would just ruin my conscience and I would feel absolutely terrible even though I just saved five lives. Now don’t get me wrong, I still feel bad about letting the five guys die on the train tracks but at least I’m not killing someone.
    I don’t quite know how many people would have to be on the tracks in order for me to change my mind. I think an interesting scenario for people like me would be if you had a family member or friend on the tracks and the stranger who you could push to save your family member’s life. It adds in a very difficult element into this, I love the person on the tracks, and yet I still would have to kill someone who probably has family of their own. These were really good and thought-provoking questions you asked.

  3. ywjpeter Says:

    This situation is often brought up in many psychology classes and you can make an argument for both cases. The reason I choose to push the man instead and saving the five rather than not doing anything is because I look back at the idea of “greatest good for the greatest amount of people”. With this ideology I think it is easy to choose to push the man, instead of doing nothing. Another perspective and outcome I feel can be produced is sacrificing oneself to save the five. In this situation we would not have to commit murder and be able to save five peoples lives in exchange for your own.

    There are many ways to look at this situation but if I was left with only the two options you’ve given me, I am quickly jumping on the train to push the one man for the saving of five. Psychologically and in the moment of this actual situation I do not know if I would be able to really perform the act I choose, because a lot of moral issues would be running through my head.

    The main question that keeps being raised in my head is how much is one life worth? Each of the lives of those five people who are about to die would still amount to 5x more worthy than a single life. Morally I would not be able to kill someone, but I think this is a good situation to show how we value morality and to what extent people will go to save multiple lives in comparison to one.

  4. cchevat Says:

    This is a very difficult moral dilemma to be faced with. If it were me in this position, I believe that I would not push the sixth man into the train. An issue that is not really addressed in this analysis is the idea of self interest. Yes, if one had an extraordinary moral compass they would probably push the sixth person or even themselves in front of the train in order to save the majority. But, we live in a world where people put their own wellbeing before that of others. The best choice for their own wellbeing is to stand idly by.
    There are many ways that self interest could sway a person’s decision. One way to look at it is that one could also feel immense guilt for watching five people get killed when he or she could have easily stopped it. This could possibly make someone more inclined to throw the sixth person in. If one did push the sixth person into the train, they themselves would be responsible for ending another person’s life instead of just letting misfortune happen. I believe that the guilt of actually ending someone’s life is greater than the guilt that comes with watching a great misfortune happen. Personally, I would not be able to live with myself for being the deciding factor in a person’s life which would be the case if I was the one who threw the sixth person in.
    I am sure there are other ways around this question where people could figure out how to stop a train without risking a person’s life, but that is not the point of this problem.The point is to see whether a person would take blame for a discretion which would lead to a benefit for the greater majority or would one stand by and let misfortune take its course.
    There are definitely many ways to look at this issue which usually leads to negative results for the society in terms of loss of members. In the end the only thing that is going to matter is how one thinks of themselves months or years after the situation has passed.

  5. aecorwin Says:

    This situation is one that I, luckily, can say that I have never faced, and therefore I have no idea how I would react. This summer, I was on a trip where we spent a lot of time discussing how we would react in various moral situations, but, when actually faced with these situations in real life, I do not know that I would actually be able to react in the way I want to believe I would act. I say now that I would want to save the lives of 5 over the one person, but I do not think that in the situation I would be in the right mind to actually push a human being in front of a moving train, nor do I think I would be able to think through the fact that this could save the other 5 in the time that it takes for the train to come. Moral issues such as this are extremely challenging, and despite how much time can be devoted to figuring out your reaction, in the moment this is likely to not be the true actions you will take. For instance, we spent the summer discussing the murder of Kitty Genovese and the 38 witnesses who did not call the police. We all said that if we saw a woman being murdered, we would call the police and accused these 38 witnesses of being immoral. However, when thinking about it, these witnesses were probably too shocked to think rationally, and probably assumed that the other witnesses would be the ones to call the police. At what point did it become their responsibility? Sure, they have the duty simply because they are humans, but if there are 37 other people watching, why should one person in specific be the one who’s job it is to call? Not that this makes it any more correct, but they did believe that someone else would call. In a moment where i was watching someone be brutally murdered, I say now that I would instantly call the police and do whatever in my power to stop it, but what if that would put me at risk? Would i risk my own life for that of a stranger?
    Thus, I think it is impossible to determine what we would do in this situation. We can sit here and contemplate for days, but until we are actually in this situation, there is no way to know.

  6. ajnovo Says:

    This is such an interesting post! I’m not sure I’d be able to make a decision especially if I knew some of the people versus if they were all random strangers. I’ve always hated hypothetical situations like this because I don’t know what I’d do, and I think it depends on the people you are saving and your relation to them.

    I have a pet cat, and my ex would always joke if I’d pick him or my cat to save if I could only pick one person/thing. I could never decide which always annoyed him. The reason I couldn’t pick was also due to how a person dies. At least in this scenario both victims will die a quick hopefully painless death, and if you push the person, maybe they won’t even know it is coming. What if one of the deaths was slow and painful? Would that change how you decide?

    I also really like how the author incorporates the thought that “rights are only respected until the needs of others trump them.” I wouldn’t want to live in a society like that. Another question I’ve thought of is how would I feel if I was pushed into the train tracks to save the five people? Sure I’d be upset at first, but at least my death wasn’t in vain. Overall, there are many ways to look at this problem, and I don’t think there is or ever will be a wrong answer.

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