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Throw Mama from the train? New Ethics for 2010

By Edited Oct 30, 2016 0 0

Throw Mama from the Train

A philosopher asked me recently if I would be willing to throw my mother in front of a speeding train if that would brake it, saving the lives of five other people. "MY mother?" I asked for clarification. Thinking on the one hand, her scant 95 pound weight could hardly stop a speeding train. On the other hand he being dead – made the idea of using her a little bit more palatable. Physics, mind you, could take this question out of the realm of Zen koan. Even a three hundred pound person of living flesh would hardly stop a speeding train – so why bother. In addition, even if our three hundred pound friend was able to slow a train, train wrecks are messy. Five people may not die, but what if the trade off is 300 hundred getting injured?

The philosopher clarified. What he wanted to know is, at what point was it alright to sacrifice the few for the good of more? Dropping the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima allegedly ended the War sooner, saving many more lives that it damaged. But the lives being lost were civilians in the cities, and the lives saved were professional soldiers. And one of the lives lost in Hiroshima was my grandfather. Ouch. I knew his Japanese sensibilities would have placed him far on the side of sacrifice for the good of the whole, although he had no say in the decision.

What about letting the people on Welfare starve as we cut Federal Funding. Will that get this country back on track? What if the people being served are drug addicts and losers anyway? And what if one person in a thousand is an innocent child, who will later, grow up to be my friend Harvey, an intelligent contributing member of society, a lawyer who pays well over his share of taxes. Does that balance the universe, that his mother spent her life on social assistance? He told me once how much he disliked being made to play the patsy for his mother. When she didn't have money she would send him into the store to explain, thinking the owners would not be so hard on a little kid. The memory of it made him more committed than the average person to paying for things in full.

Back to the speeding train conundrum. In my heart I can't help thinking as bad as it would be to witness five people dying, I don't think I could bring myself to throw friend or stranger in front of train. That would be a culpable act that I would not feel good about. A person who did would have to be real clear they believed they were doing a greater good. Clear enough to do jail time for murder. On the other hand, if the sacrifice was me I would have different feelings. If I had the prior knowledge of what my act would do, why wouldn't I do it? Nothing could hold me back.

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