The humility of a genius

By Atty. Farah G. Decano


WHEN my genius of a friend finally changed her mind and agreed with my choices, I was astounded.

“You are strange!” I said.

“Why?”  she asked.

“People your caliber and age usually stubbornly stick to what they earlier

pronounced. And here you are, manifesting intellectual humility.”

She remarked that it was wrong to stick to one’s belief if additional facts have been presented to disprove her earlier belief.  What was our discussion about? The famous dilemma of the run-away train or sometimes called, the trolley problem. The narrative goes like this:

A run-away train lost its control and was about to run over five people tied to its tracks. If you happened to have the power to pull the lever and redirect the train to the only track available, but to do so would mean to kill one person tied to the alternative rail.  What would you do?

My friend graduated at the top of her batch at the UP School of Economics and presently holds a high position in one of the most respectable companies in the Philippines.   I have always seen her as an upright woman who represents reason and compassion at the same time.   Instead of discussing lives of people, we delight in mental calisthenics. Nerds, I admit, we sometimes are, hahaha! Better than being tsismosas, right?

Her take on the predicament? First, she narrowed down the issue to choosing a sin of omission or sin of commission. She later said she won’t change the direction of the trolley. She said one life is as valuable as the other five lives.  Her decision reflects a very sound principle of justice.

“What about you?” she asked me.

“I would touch that lever” I replied.

“You are a utilitarian!” she labeled me.

The utilitarian theory says that common good is determined by the greatest good for the greatest number. Intrigued by my answer, she modified the scenario by giving faces to the five people.  She inquired what my decision would be if those five people happened to be my family members and the single person on the other track was the love of my life.  I responded that I would not touch the lever this time.  All the more she was amazed.  Let me explain my answer.  In the first scenario the value of each people was the same to me. They were all strangers so I could ascribe good faith to all of them. If they were all apples, all I need to do is add them up. The value of five apples is definitely more than the value of one apple. In the second scenario where the people were not strangers, then I cannot give equal value to the lives of the people involved.  It is like comparing apples and oranges. They won’t add up. I will let the trolley take its course.

“Your judgment could be clouded then by personalities involved!” she said. “That’s why judges should inhibit when there is anything that would prevent them from deciding a case objectively,” I snapped.   Under the Judicial Ethics rules, judges are mandated to recuse themselves from a case because the law recognizes their humanity and influence of emotions.

After counterchecking with Rawl’s theory of Justice and Kant’s Philosophy, she was persuaded. She finally agreed with my choices.

These answers are, however, limited to the Trolley issue of sacrificing one life in favor of five.  The answer may be different if the five people were patients in a hospital in need of organ donations and the single person is one who could provide all the needs of all the five.  This will be discussed in next issue of this paper.

Meantime, I bid my genius friend goodbye and told her to continue to being “strange.”

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