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Author Topic: Killing people on trains (a thought experiment in morality)
LeaflessMapleTree
The twelve shopping days 'til Christmas


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A new twist to an old problem. In two parts.

PART 1:
-------
You are sitting in a booth near a traintrack switchboard. Two trains are heading toward each other. There are some unique qualities to these trains.

1) They run on electricity picked up from the rails

2) They are equipped with 'eject' mechanisms that can be activated from the control booth. If activated, the train will jump the tracks.

On board one of the trains are 1500 random people you have never met. No one you know has ever met them either.

On board the other train are all of the following (where applicable)

-Your mother
-Your father
-Your brothers
-Your sisters
-Your children
-Your grandchildren
-Your 5 best friends

The total number of all of these people is less than 25.

The trains are travelling toward each other at a speed of 200 km/h.

You have three options:

1) Do nothing - in this case, the two trains will collide at a combined speed of 400 km/h and everyone on both trains will die

2) Eject train 1 from the tracks - in this case, all 1500 people will die

3) Eject train 2 from the tracks - in this case, all 25 people will die.

-------
PART 2:
-------

All of the above still holds true, except for one additional detail. Since the tracks are electric, the designers feared that animals who accidentally wandered onto the tracks and were electrocuted could pose a safety hazard, causing trains to derail. So the whole system was designed so that if anything were electrocuted on the tracks, the power would cut out immediately.

If you electrocute yourself, you will cut the power to both trains, saving everyone on board. You will be killed instantly.

----

Part 1: What choice do you make?
Part 2: What choice do you make?

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"For me, religion is like a rhinoceros: I don't have one, and I'd really prefer not to be trampled by yours. But it is impressive, and even beautiful, and, to be honest, the world would be slightly worse off if there weren't any."
-Silas Sparkhammer

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Logoboros
We Three Blings


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I would probably shout: "Quick! Somebody do something!"

--Logoboros

ETA: If I had time to think about it, perhaps I could opt for self-sacrifice. But I've sometimes wondered about the "throw yourself on the live grenade" scenario, and I'm pretty confident that my instinct upon seeing a live grenade thrown near me would be to dive in the opposite direction, without any real thought going into it. Afterwards, perhaps, I would loathe myself. But I doubt I could choose self-sacrifice as a snap-decision (though I hear that if one has children and they are involved, the throw-yourself-between-your-child-and-danger instinct can kick in).

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"If Men were Wise, the Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them. If they are not wise, the Freest Government is compelld to be a Tyranny."

--William Blake

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Stormfeather
Silver Sells


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In the first one, I'd probably save the train with my friends and family members. A bit selfish in one way - but you're supposed to look out for your family and friends, and especially children/grandchildren. If possible of course it's good to look out for just your fellow man, but if you can only do one, then the bond of friendship and family (and especially offspring) trumps the greater numbers, for me.

The second, I really don't know. I'd like to think that I'd sacrifice myself, but... well, I'm a selfish person when it comes down to it, and I don't know if I'd be able to make myself do it, when it comes down to the wire. Especially if I could still save the friends and family without dying.

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This space for rent

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LeaflessMapleTree
The twelve shopping days 'til Christmas


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quote:
Originally posted by Logoboros:
I would probably shout: "Quick! Somebody do something!"

--Logoboros

You could do that, but if you'll humour me and play within the rules I have set out for this exercise, you are now deciding to go with option 1 (doing nothing) because no one else is around.

--------------------
"For me, religion is like a rhinoceros: I don't have one, and I'd really prefer not to be trampled by yours. But it is impressive, and even beautiful, and, to be honest, the world would be slightly worse off if there weren't any."
-Silas Sparkhammer

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Logoboros
We Three Blings


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On the first point, I think I could probably choose the #3 option -- the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and all that. Plus, I believe my family would forgive me (posthumously, perhaps), whereas the families of those 1500 strangers probably would not.

And nothing personal to Stormfeather, but but the family-first morality really bothers me -- probably because I've seen it too often twisted in the kinds of cases where you see a relative saying "Yeah, I knew he had that gun in his truck and that he was gettin' a little crazy and he probably would end up killin' somebody eventually, but I weren't gonna turn him in: he's family! " Of course, some of our most entertaining, murderous feuds have been based on just this principle, and where would our Appalachian stereotypes (not to mention Mafia stereotypes) be without those?

--Logoboros

--------------------
"If Men were Wise, the Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them. If they are not wise, the Freest Government is compelld to be a Tyranny."

--William Blake

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LeaflessMapleTree
The twelve shopping days 'til Christmas


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quote:
Originally posted by Logoboros:
And nothing personal to Stormfeather, but but the family-first morality really bothers me -- probably because I've seen it too often twisted in the kinds of cases where you see a relative saying "Yeah, I knew he had that gun in his truck and that he was gettin' a little crazy and he probably would end up killin' somebody eventually, but I weren't gonna turn him in: he's family! "
--Logoboros

For the record, in both cases I would choose to save my friends and family and have the other people die. As for your discomfort with family-first mentality, I would like to point out the difference between not turning in a family member for a crime, and killing a family member.

I'm not knocking your course of action in my scenario, just the example you gave of why you feel that way.

--------------------
"For me, religion is like a rhinoceros: I don't have one, and I'd really prefer not to be trampled by yours. But it is impressive, and even beautiful, and, to be honest, the world would be slightly worse off if there weren't any."
-Silas Sparkhammer

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Jenn
Layaway in a Manger


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Part 1: Option 3. I'm confident that all of the applicable people on that train would agree it was the best choice to make under the circumstances and make the same choice in my place. In fact, the most influential and important person would be horrified and dismayed if I chose option 2. He would feel he raised me better than that and be very disappointed (he asks me these kinds of morality questions for fun).

Part 2: I think I could and would make the sacrifice.

However, in reality, I am a panicker who would end up doing nothing simply because I wouldn't be able to get my wits about me in time.

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"You're the opposite of troll. It's a compliment!"

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Midgard_Dragon
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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Part 1: I would save my family. I know it's selfish, but I also know that in the heat of the moment I would be thinking about those I love the most.

Part 2: Electrocute myself, however, wouldn't it be possible to throw some other non-living object onto the tracks and achieve the same effect? Or should we assume that we have nothing of the sort at hand?

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Midgard Dragon
-==UDIC==-
MidgardDragon's MySpace

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LeaflessMapleTree
The twelve shopping days 'til Christmas


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quote:
Part 2: Electrocute myself, however, wouldn't it be possible to throw some other non-living object onto the tracks and achieve the same effect? Or should we assume that we have nothing of the sort at hand?

You have nothing of the sort at hand. This is one of the few times that thinking outside the box is not allowed [Smile]

--------------------
"For me, religion is like a rhinoceros: I don't have one, and I'd really prefer not to be trampled by yours. But it is impressive, and even beautiful, and, to be honest, the world would be slightly worse off if there weren't any."
-Silas Sparkhammer

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Jenn
Layaway in a Manger


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quote:
Originally posted by Midgard_Dragon:
Or should we assume that we have nothing of the sort at hand?

We really do have to assume a lot of things about these scenarios to stick to them. Obviously if you could throw something else on you would, so you have to assume you have nothing but yourself.

We also necessarily have to assume that we know how many passengers are on the one train and that we have no first or secondhand connections to a single one of them, that the other train carries only our 25 closest loved ones and no one else, that we'll instantly know which train is which and recognize which one carries our family, etc. We assume we have detailed knowledge of the passenger makeup of each train and also have those details memorized with the train schedules and that we'll instantly be able to bring it all to mind to make a decision with very little time, no matter how unlikely any of that may be.

We also have to assume that they don't already have any sort of failsafe method of killing the power to the tracks in the even of this kind of emergency (other than throwing oneself on the tracks) and that there's no standard operating procedure for switchboard workers in emergencies, which I think is the most unlikely of all.

But getting into semantics and logistics isn't the point of the exercise. Most of these morality questions are very flawed when you try to apply reality and logic to them.

--------------------
"You're the opposite of troll. It's a compliment!"

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LeaflessMapleTree
The twelve shopping days 'til Christmas


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quote:
But getting into semantics and logistics isn't the point of the exercise. Most of these morality questions are very flawed when you try to apply reality and logic to them.
Absolutely. I could have simply phrased it "Would you rather save 25 of your closest family and friends and let 1500 people you have no connection to die, or vice versa?" But it's more interesting to read a bizzare, unlikely scenario.

--------------------
"For me, religion is like a rhinoceros: I don't have one, and I'd really prefer not to be trampled by yours. But it is impressive, and even beautiful, and, to be honest, the world would be slightly worse off if there weren't any."
-Silas Sparkhammer

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Logoboros
We Three Blings


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quote:
Originally posted by MapleLeaf:
As for your discomfort with family-first mentality, I would like to point out the difference between not turning in a family member for a crime, and killing a family member.

Fair enough, but both are still premised, fundamentally, on the principle that the life of a family member is worth more in a moral equation than the life of anyone else. Opting to save a family member from death row by allowing them to cause the deaths of several other people is in the same plane of choice. Just as is opting to kill 100 foreign citizens to save the life of one native soldier -- a choice I disagree with but which I have no doubt many people would make without much hesitation.

I think once you allow yourself to start valuing one human life differently from another, you're creating a morality based not on principle but on instinct and individual prejudice, which is a poor foundation at best.

--Logoboros

--------------------
"If Men were Wise, the Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them. If they are not wise, the Freest Government is compelld to be a Tyranny."

--William Blake

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Mr. Billion
The First USA Noel


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I choose to derail both trains to achieve the maximum score of 1,525. I win!

Honestly, though, my response is pretty much the same as Jenn's. I'd derail the train with 25 loved ones rather than 1,500 strangers, and off myself rather than doing either.

--------------------
"For the U.S. to get involved militarily in determining the outcome of the struggle over who's going to govern Iraq strikes me as a classic definition of a quagmire." ~Dick Cheney.

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Logoboros
We Three Blings


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Another point on the choosing family thing which is worth sussing out, as this is a thread on "morality."

It's one thing to say: "I would choose to save my family."

It's another to say: "I would choose to save my family, which is the right thing to do."

I can entirely understand the former (just as I recognize that self-sacrifice is, according to my morality, the right thing to do, even though I may not have the willpower to do it), but have a problem with the reasoning of the latter.

--Logoboros

--------------------
"If Men were Wise, the Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them. If they are not wise, the Freest Government is compelld to be a Tyranny."

--William Blake

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Monster Joe
I'm Dreaming of a White Sale


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I'm afraid I'd probably kill off 1500 strangers... In either scenario [Frown]

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You're saying "Long Live Rock n Roll!" not "Let's go home and drink a beer"

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Stormfeather
Silver Sells


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Well, as I said, it'd be the way I'd look at it, and I did point out it's somewhat selfish. I'm not saying that necessarily it'd be the stark morally *right* thing to do, but just that it'd be what I'd do, for specific reasons. And I don't think I should (in that hypothetical scenario) be condemned for it.

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Blue Fuzzy Thing
I'll Be Home for After Christmas Sales


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Part 1: I'd hit whatever button's closest, it doesn't matter which. And then Iíd use the rest of the time to try and stop the other train.

Part 2: Iíd like to think Iíd electrocute myself to save the trains, but there is no real way of knowing what weíd do in this sort of situation until it happens.

Am I missing something here? If the two trains are going to crash into each other, and I Ďejectí one of them, thus saving it, havenít I saved both trains? Whatís the other train going to crash into?

Blue Fuzzy Thing

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People say I have ADD, but they just donít understand that... Oh look! A chicken!

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stalker
Deck the Malls


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quote:
Originally posted by Blue Fuzzy Thing:
Am I missing something here? If the two trains are going to crash into each other, and I Ďejectí one of them, thus saving it, havenít I saved both trains? Whatís the other train going to crash into?

The ejected train isn't saved. It flies through the air and comes tumbling down to the ground killing the occupants.

As to my options it's killing family and friends (most of which I don't really like anyway) in scenario 1 and myself in the 2nd one.

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Fetishists Unite! Anti-Fetishists Untie!

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Blue Fuzzy Thing
I'll Be Home for After Christmas Sales


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So There would be no way to save both trains. Hmmm. I'd probably derail the train with 1500 strangers. It's selfish, but I would want to save the life of my child.

Blue Fuzzy Thing

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People say I have ADD, but they just donít understand that... Oh look! A chicken!

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Indefatigable
I'm Dreaming of a White Sale


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Delurking here...

I don't know about part 1.

Part 2: I'd throw something onto the tracks that would cause a derailment hazard and flip the stray-animal switch. A suitcase or backpack might do it.

EDIT: whoops, I see that someone already suggested my #2 scenario and had it vetoed... nuts.

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Nonny Mouse, on Santa's laptop
Once in Royal Circuit City


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I think it would be easier to sacrifice myself for a bunch of strangers than to sacrifice my loved ones for them.

I'd like to be able to say that I'd save the maximum possible number of people in each case, but as this is likely to be a spur-of-the-moment decision with little time to think things over, I'm afraid instinct would kick in and I'd probably save my family in the first scenario and myself in the second, then hate myself afterward.

Nonny

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When there isn't anything else worth analyzing, we examine our collective navel. I found thirty-six cents in change in mine the other day. Let no one say that there is no profit in philosophy. -- Silas Sparkhammer

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RingKeeper
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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Part #1: I would do the selfish thing and save my family. Perhaps the adults of my family on that train would think it the wrong choice, but when my children are involved they come before all else.

Part #2: I would make the sacrifice. I'm saving my family, which I would do anyway, and also save the 1500 people in the other train. In part #1, having killed all those people, I would not live a happy life anyway. Better to do the right thing than live with the guilt and misery of having caused the deaths of hundreds of people.

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There are just some things a dog can't explain to a monkey.

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Doug4.7
Angels Wii Have Heard on High


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Part #1: I would save the 1500. It would be easy because I hate my family.... [Wink]
Part #2: I would throw myself on the track (I hate myself). [Wink]

Note, I don't really hate myself or my family, but my actions would be the same. I would try to save as many lives as possible.

--------------------
And now for something completely different...

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BeachLife
The Bills of St. Mary's


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Part 1: Everyone would die why I contemplated the questions:

- How did my mother and father ever agree to get on the same train together?

- I have sisters ?!?

- I have grandchidren ?!!!?

- Who exactly are my five best friends?

- What the hell are all these people doing on a train without me?


Part 2: I'd Macgyver it to make the track 'think' something was being electrocuted.

--------------------
Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
Jack Dragon, On Being a Dragon
Confessions of a Dragon's scribe
Diary of my Heart Surgery

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Stoneage Dinosaur
We Wish You a Merry Giftmas


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Part 1 - Eject train 2 from the tracks - killing all 25 people.

Part 2 - Curse MapleLeaf for putting me and 1500+ people in such a wantonly cruel situation, then electrocute myself and save everyone else.

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"You learn something new every day if you're not careful" - Wilf Lunn

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LeaflessMapleTree
The twelve shopping days 'til Christmas


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quote:
Part 2: I'd Macgyver it to make the track 'think' something was being electrocuted.
2 people have tried this. It isn't allowed. At best, you let both trains crash while you search in vain for a way to do this [Smile]

--------------------
"For me, religion is like a rhinoceros: I don't have one, and I'd really prefer not to be trampled by yours. But it is impressive, and even beautiful, and, to be honest, the world would be slightly worse off if there weren't any."
-Silas Sparkhammer

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BeachLife
The Bills of St. Mary's


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quote:
Originally posted by MapleLeaf:
quote:
Part 2: I'd Macgyver it to make the track 'think' something was being electrocuted.
2 people have tried this. It isn't allowed. At best, you let both trains crash while you search in vain for a way to do this [Smile]
Pfft, isn't allowed...

I hate these morality questions because they assume there is only two possible answers to any problem.

I suppose then I couldn't grab a nearby cat or puppy and throw it on the tracks either?

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Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
Jack Dragon, On Being a Dragon
Confessions of a Dragon's scribe
Diary of my Heart Surgery

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Hubert Cumberdale
We Wish You a Merry Giftmas


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I don't know what I would do for part 1 but I have a solution for part 2 (I think).

If I know how the trains work I'm assuming I work there. If that's the case I know this situation could happen so I would keep a wet sponge or something that would cause the system to shut down then when the time comes, throw it on the tracks, saving everyone including myself.

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Rebochan the Retail Reindeer
Good King Wal-Mart


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I'm with Beach. I can't stand these quandries because I am naturally inclined to look for the third solution and I get annoyed when they're arbitrarily shut off.

Me, I'd look for a chipmunk or a puppy or something. Does it bring it back on track if it's my puppy I'm throwing? He's a very cute puppy.

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"One original thought is worth a thousand mindless quotings." -- Diogenes

"Vote Republican! We won't burn you at the stake for your religious beliefs or slaughter your family and steal your land." -- Ramblin' Dave

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Dog Friendly
Carol of the Bills


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Not my puppy, you don't.

My morals tell me that minimizing casualties is the way to go. My morally correct choice would be to sacrifice my loved ones in Option 1, and myself in Option 2. To those who've claimed a preference for saving their 25 loved ones at the cost of 1500 strangers' lives, I just want to point out that those 1500 people presumably have loved ones of their own. You're punching a hole in many more than 1500 people's lives by sacrificing them, even if they weren't personally known to you.

To be brutally honest, though, there's a fair chance I'd still be looking around for ways to fiddle the system by the time it was Too Late. It's all very well to define the problem as having only the solutions listed, but when the question begins with "What would you do...", I have to answer in terms of what I would do -- which would involve refusing to believe the stated parameters until I'd tested them for myself.

Kilgore ("He kissed his wife at the station door") Trout

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"Nobody ever got stoned and beat up his old lady" -- Spence, snapdragonfly's friend

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Blue Fuzzy Thing
I'll Be Home for After Christmas Sales


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quote:
Originally posted by Stoneage Dinosaur:
Part 2 - Curse MapleLeaf for putting me and 1500+ people in such a wantonly cruel situation, then electrocute myself and save everyone else.

Hey, wait a minute!
Why don't we throw MapleLeaf onto the tracks to save the trains! [Smile]

Blue Fuzzy Thing

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People say I have ADD, but they just donít understand that... Oh look! A chicken!

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BeachLife
The Bills of St. Mary's


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And assuming that we were in agreement to the fact that there were only two options, the circumstances behind the delima make a big difference in the answer as well.

Would I kill my son to save 100 men?

Maybe my son is the uni-bomber and I know that turning him in is the only way to stop him even though that means that he will get the death penalty.

- or -

There are 100 serial killers on death row. My son is pushing to have a law passed that will force the 'back log' on death row to be cleared up within the year. If he's not around, the law won't pass.

Beach...circumstance are everything...Life!

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Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
Jack Dragon, On Being a Dragon
Confessions of a Dragon's scribe
Diary of my Heart Surgery

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ali_marea
The "Was on Sale" Song


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Just going by the strict guidelines, not adding any extra thought or arguments (that's kinda hard for someone on this board [Wink] )...I'd save my family and friends.

And I would most likely not throw myself on the tracks.

Now if the only way to save my family was to throw myself onto the tracks, that's a different story.

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28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. That is when the world will end.

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El Camino
We Three Blings


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quote:
Originally posted by MapleLeaf:
quote:
But getting into semantics and logistics isn't the point of the exercise. Most of these morality questions are very flawed when you try to apply reality and logic to them.
Absolutely. I could have simply phrased it "Would you rather save 25 of your closest family and friends and let 1500 people you have no connection to die, or vice versa?" But it's more interesting to read a bizzare, unlikely scenario.
This is very similar to but fundamentally different from something I've been discussing / thinking about lately. That is, "Would you rather die or have X people die?" (It gets interesting, because you can decide what value of X your cutoff would be, and also substitude any combination of people you love for yourself.) The difference between the two is that in your case, you actively decide who is dead, thus implying some moral responsibility for those people you do not save. In my scenario (alright, it's not even a scenario), you don't actually act to save or cause the death of anyone, you're just saying what you would much rather happen.

For example, if I had full knowledge of the effects, I like to think I would die to stop something like the Holocaust or September 11th. (I say "I like to think" that because obviously I can't say if I would be able to sacrifice myself, but I think I would). The guilt of living on after having not saved those people would basically make life not worth living afterwards.

However, if we remove the guilt, it changes a lot of thing. I mean, I'm pretty glad I'm alive today, and would not much rather be dead than have the WTC bombings go on.

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Rhiandmoi
Ding Dong! Merrily on High Definition TV


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I would probably stand on the junction and let the trains crash into each other and squish me at the same time. And I would beat Mr. Billion's high score with a 1526!

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I think that hyperbole is the single greatest factor contributing to the decline of society. - My friend Pat.

What is .02 worth?

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