That trolley question again

By Atty. Farah G. Decano


WOULD you be willing to sacrifice one life to save five lives?

That, in a nutshell, is the crux of the famed trolley problem.  In last week’s issue, the controversy was limited to the out-of-control train that was about to run over five strangers tied to the rails. If you had the power to divert the train’s path to its only alternative, would you pull the lever even if it meant the death of one person who was also strapped to the other track?

I have asked five people this question and all of them answered, yes.  When I changed the scenario to a hospital setting, their answers varied.  The narrative is now about five patients who are in desperate need of organs to survive and are already at the point of death.  There is one sick person nearby who has all the organs needed by the five patients and was merely in the danger of possible fatality.  If you were the doctor attending to all these patients, would you sacrifice one unwell person and harvest his organs in order to save the five others?

Four of my respondents answered in the negative. To their minds, the life of a healthier patient deserves as much respect as the lives of those who were dying even if they were greater in number. The one respondent, who remained unflinching about her decision to sacrifice one life in favor of five, reasoned out that she will take responsibility for her judgment call.  To her, the evaluation of the situation remained five is greater than one.

Adam Schmidt, a modern philosopher explained that the modified scenario from a runaway train to a hospital context changed most minds because of the value attached to the new setting. In hospitals, we expect value for each life. The trolley situation is void of such appreciation.  Patients go to hospitals to be saved and not to be saviors or sacrificial lambs.  If a certain hospital intentionally kills a sick to save dying people, then that hospital would soon run out of patients.  People would think that securing services from that health institution may mean risking a death sentence.

Now, let us expand our imagined setting to a community which is governed through institutions that are mandated to uphold the law and protect life, liberty and property.  Picture its leadership encouraging the police and military forces to kill hundreds of suspected drug pushers without any judicial intervention.  The head justifies his illegal order with the noble intention that he was merely protecting millions of people from the pernicious effects of illegal drugs on peace and order.  What happens to the community?  Its members, whose supposed values and principles are reflected more permanently in laws, will feel threatened by this kind of government-sponsored extrajudicial killings.  The community’s constituency expects that government agencies should protect life in a lawful manner at all times, and if, the leadership can’t respect these values and principles, then public confidence will eventually erode.  Soon the citizenry will no longer feel safe and may either be compelled to change the leadership, to rise in disobedience or rebellion, or worse, to succumb to blind subservience.

We could expand this dilemma of the runaway train to many other present ethical controversies.  In the meantime, the trolley question teaches us that what are we willing to sacrifice in exchange for another is reflective of our values.  Ah, time to evaluate our values.

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