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Author Topic: Killing people on trains (a thought experiment in morality)
Jenn
Layaway in a Manger


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quote:
Originally posted by ali_marea:
Just going by the strict guidelines, not adding any extra thought or arguments (that's kinda hard for someone on this board [Wink] )

I never find it very hard. Like any game it has rules, so I stick to them or I don't play. Like I said, getting into semantics and logistics isn't the point of the exercise. Finding loopholes, pushing the parameters, giving 'funny' answers, and complaining about how it doesn't make sense rather puzzles me. It's like answering "If you were on death row, what would you pick for your last meal?" with "This is dumb because I wouldn't be on death row." Or, even more frivilous, answering "What are you wearing right now?" with "This is dumb. It's none of your business and I don't care what any of you are wearing, either." If people aren't going to stick to the guidelines, why participate at all?

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ThistleSoftware
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Scenario 1: throw the train with 25 people off the tracks

Scenario 2: throw myself onto the tracks.

At least, those are what I consider the morally right things to do. Whether I could actually sacrifice myself or the 25 people closest to me for 1500 strangers is another question.

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ali_marea
The "Was on Sale" Song


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quote:
Originally posted by Jenn:
quote:
Originally posted by ali_marea:
Just going by the strict guidelines, not adding any extra thought or arguments (that's kinda hard for someone on this board [Wink] )

I never find it very hard. Like any game it has rules, so I stick to them or I don't play. Like I said, getting into semantics and logistics isn't the point of the exercise. Finding loopholes, pushing the parameters, giving 'funny' answers, and complaining about how it doesn't make sense rather puzzles me. It's like answering "If you were on death row, what would you pick for your last meal?" with "This is dumb because I wouldn't be on death row." Or, even more frivilous, answering "What are you wearing right now?" with "This is dumb. It's none of your business and I don't care what any of you are wearing, either." If people aren't going to stick to the guidelines, why participate at all?
I agree, actually. But I've seen it happen so many times here, I assume it's darn near impossible for some folks.

Me, I get the game and I don't mind playing.

And I know myself. I'm not at hero. And I'm selfish when it comes to my family and loved ones. I'd save them in a heartbeat.

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LeaflessMapleTree
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quote:
Originally posted by Rhiandmoi:
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!

This answer amuses me so much that I am inclined to allow this option.

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Mistletoey Chloe
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Morally right would be to sacrifice the 25, or yourself if possible, to save the 1500.

Me, I'm saving my family and friends. They come first. And since they would be much more hurt by my death than they would be by the deaths of the 1500 strangers, I'm not throwing myself off either. It's the concentric circle issue I brought up in an abortion thread. Hundreds of people died in a typhoon in the last couple of days. If you could, would you save them by killing the person closest to you in the world? Sorry, no.

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LeaflessMapleTree
The twelve shopping days 'til Christmas


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quote:
Originally posted by Flowy Chloe:
Morally right would be to sacrifice the 25, or yourself if possible, to save the 1500.

Everyone seems to be saying that, regardless of what they would do personally, it is morally right to save the 1500 strangers in part 1 and to kill yourself in part 2.

Does anyone feel that this is not necessarily true?

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tribrats
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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It's funny to read your last post. I've been thinking about that since reading your first post. Society says that morally you should save the larger group. Why?

1 and 2) I would save my family. And I would have no guilt about it. I'd feel bad for the people on the other train but my obligations are to my family. Especially my children and potential grandchildren.

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guruwan2b
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I would throw a fox with mange on the tracks.... there is always a fox with mange nearby....

ETA: Or I would call up Brad from Georgia. When Brad's around there will always be squirrels....

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Finite Fourier Alchemy
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quote:
Originally posted by MapleLeaf:
quote:
Originally posted by Flowy Chloe:
Morally right would be to sacrifice the 25, or yourself if possible, to save the 1500.

Everyone seems to be saying that, regardless of what they would do personally, it is morally right to save the 1500 strangers in part 1 and to kill yourself in part 2.

Does anyone feel that this is not necessarily true?

I'd go for doing nothing on #1. Regardless of the relationship between myself and the 1525, I wouldn't be able to kill 25 innocent people to save 1500 innocent people in complete cold context.

If I were in command of a military force, or perhaps in some other dire situation where I was prepared for such decisions, I might be able to justify my actions. But without that, the act of actively murdering 25 people is something I would not be able to stand. The only way I would sacrifice them is if I communicated the situation to them and had their unanimous approval to sacrifice them. (Thus giving the decision to them.)

Like any static "Would you kill X people to save Y people" scenario I fall back on my scientific ethics and state, very firmly, I do not have the right to harm anyone no matter what the potential gains. It is not my place to decide who lives and who dies.

On #2 I would think self-sacrifice would be the way to go, though I'd have to be pretty damn convinced my suicide would prevent the disaster.

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Jenn
Layaway in a Manger


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quote:
Originally posted by tribrats:
It's funny to read your last post. I've been thinking about that since reading your first post. Society says that morally you should save the larger group. Why?

Just inherent belief that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. That doesn't mean that the few are less important, but sometimes choices need to be made with reducing damage as much as possible in mind.

The example that came to my mind is the rumour that UA Flight 93 was shot down before it could be crashed into a building. I know people who are outraged horrified at the US government over that but to others the idea is merely the best thing you can do to reduce the total number of deaths. If you could sacrifice the ~250 passengers and crews of the four planes to save the 2500+ people in the Pentagon and WTC towers, would you?

MapleLeaf's question is really the same thing only with family thrown into the mix for the emotional pull. For me, whether I know the people or not doesn't really come into it. If the scenario were the same except it was 25 strangers versus 1500 strangers, about whom you know absolutely nothing except numbers, which train would you choose to save and why?

quote:
I'd feel bad for the people on the other train but my obligations are to my family.
And for me, I don't understand higher obligations for people to whom I happen to be related by blood or paperwork when it comes to something like this. It becomes about the greatest benefit overall, to society or humankind or however you want to define it. It's also about my own conscience, and I would quite honestly rather have 25 deaths on my hands than 1500.

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El Camino
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quote:
Originally posted by Jenn:
And for me, I don't understand higher obligations for people to whom I happen to be related by blood or paperwork when it comes to something like this. It becomes about the greatest benefit overall, to society or humankind or however you want to define it. It's also about my own conscience, and I would quite honestly rather have 25 deaths on my hands than 1500.

But, especially with regard to the children, society does place a large importance on the parents being responsible for them. Whenever kids do something disturbing, or make a mess out of their lives, someones inevatibly goes "Where are these kid's parents?" Like it or not, parents do have a responsibility to their children in our society. Whether this goes far enough to justify forfeiting the lives of others to save them is up for debate, but there's no question that the responsibility is there.


Besides, it's not just some people with whom you "happen to be related by blood or paperwork." The spirit of the exercise is not just people who are related to you, but ideally comparing people who mean a lot to you with faceless numbers. If all these people were to die, not only would you kinda-maybe be responsible for their deaths (or at least knowing you could have saved them, even at high cost), but you would be left in a terrible situation without the people who mean the most to you. It's partially a selfish decision, yes, but who here calls the action that saves your family outright immoral? I don't think I would.

(Sorry - a little divergent there. Much of this does not just address the quoted post, just general whatnot.)

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evilrabbit
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quote:
Killing people on trains
Gen'rully, I'm agin' it.

But, as to the actual question, I'm torn. Again, I know that it's right to save as many people as you can, but in the clinch, I don't think I could sacrifice the 25 people I care most about (I'll ignore the specifics of who MapleLeaf said was on the train in favor of "loved ones"; it avoids the "I hate my family and friends" response). It would probably work out to either "dithering until it's too late" or "selfishly save my loved ones". Of course, whatever happened, I'd feel guilty about it [formerCatholicsarcasm] and isn't that what Catholicism is all about?[/formerCatholicsarcasm]
Of course, in the second instance, there's a good chance I would sacrifice myself. Which in my case is more selfish than it looks on the surface.

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Rhiandmoi
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quote:
Originally posted by MapleLeaf:
quote:
Originally posted by Flowy Chloe:
Morally right would be to sacrifice the 25, or yourself if possible, to save the 1500.

Everyone seems to be saying that, regardless of what they would do personally, it is morally right to save the 1500 strangers in part 1 and to kill yourself in part 2.

Does anyone feel that this is not necessarily true?

Well it is like Beachlife says, it depends on who the people are. If the 1500 are a traveling delegation of war criminals it would probably be more moral to save my family - since none of them are war criminals.

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Jenn
Layaway in a Manger


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quote:
Originally posted by El Camino:
But, especially with regard to the children, society does place a large importance on the parents being responsible for them. ... Like it or not, parents do have a responsibility to their children in our society.

I do recognize that. I'm not passing judgment on anyone, I'm just explaining my personal reasoning to others who don't share it. The list of loved ones in the OP said "where applicable." I don't have children, grandchildren, brothers, grandparents, or a mother in my life, therefore they were not part of the equation. The question wasn't to be answered with potential loved ones, only ones who are actually present with a number cap of 25. Applying that, there would actually only be 7 people on my 'family' train and I answered based on that.

quote:
If all these people were to die, not only would you kinda-maybe be responsible for their deaths (or at least knowing you could have saved them, even at high cost), but you would be left in a terrible situation without the people who mean the most to you.
Again, we're all answering based on what family and friend situations are applicable to us and I did take your point into consideration as applied to my situation. I would be losing 7 people and it happens that two of those people (father and sister) aren't actually regularly in my life. I can honestly say that while it would be terrible, it would not be unbearable to face without those 7 people, nor easier to deal with because they were still active parts of my life.

I also firmly believe that these 7 people would make the same choices in my place and I don't believe they would support my choice if I saved them. They would probably condemn my choice to sacrifice 1500 to save them, and thus I would still be facing this terrible ordeal without them.

quote:
It's partially a selfish decision, yes, but who here calls the action that saves your family outright immoral? I don't think I would.
I think it's a wholly selfish decision, not a partial one. I also don't think it's necessarily wrong or immoral.

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Nion
We Three Blings


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The Ultimate Answers:

Scenario One: Choose to eject the car with my friends and family. HOWEVER . . . before doing so I call one of them on my cell phone and tell them everyone needs to jump in the next sixty seconds or they all DIE. Some may still die from injuries sustained jumping, but they will have a chance at survival.

Scenario Two: Instead of throwing my entire body on the tracks, I quickly cut off a body part (such as a foot) and toss it onto the tracks, thusly causing the electricity to cut out. I will suffer massive blood loss and sever pain and loss of an apendage, but everyone lives.

*takes a bow*

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JFB
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I would like to add that I have personally contrived several such head-on collision scenarios involving trains, and each time I chose option one with malicious joy.

Then I set about masking any damage inflicted on the engines to prevent my parents from taking away my train set again.

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Eddylizard
We Wish You a Merry Giftmas


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I do nothing and allow the two trains to collide. At the subsequent enquiry into the crash I explain in my testimony that had a simple electrical cut-off switch been installed in the switchroom, the tragedy could have been averted.

Based on this testimony the board of enquiry recommends the train/track operators are forced to fit switchrooms with cut-off switches, thus potentially saving thousands more lives in the future.

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tribrats
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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For me, if the 25 were unknown, I'd save the mass before the few in a heartbeat. The fact that the scenario does involve my kids would be the decider for me. Hell, if it was a choice between a city and my kids, a country and them, any combination of scenarios, my kids would win every time. But that's just it, they are scenarios. Not real-life.

To answer the flight question, the only thing I would feel comfortable saying is the if I was aboard, I would prefer if they shot down the plane rather than let it crash into a building full of people.

It's one thing to play "what if" but something altogether different to work with real events. I honestly don't know how I would react in a real-life situation. There are way too many factors in real-life.

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Logoboros
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One thing Jenn mentioned, but most "I'd save my family" folks haven't addressed, is the idea that isn't it likely that your family would condemn you, or that you would make your family member's lives miserable? That you would be that person who allowed all those people to die, just to "selfishly" save your relatives? What good are you to your family if you go down as a national villain?

We may feel sympathy for the (hypothetical) Jewish mother who kept her kids out of the concentration camps by ratting out a dozen other families, but who thinks that person went on to live a happy and joyful life? Who thinks those children -- no matter how grateful they are to be alive -- see their mother as a hero?

--Logoboros

ETA: If nothing else, the support for saving the family here does show us that the age-old staple of Western Cultural values "Better I and my family die with honor than live on in shame" no longer has much traction.

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Damian
We Wish You a Merry Giftmas


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If I were on the second train, I would want a family member to save me. I certainly would not condemn that person for choosing to save me at a cost of 1500 lives.

Surely the national villain would be the person that allowed two trains on the same track.

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Logoboros
We Three Blings


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That depends on the nature of the situation. I'm reading it as that managing the track is your job. The public trust is in you. It may well be your fault or a complete accident that the two trains are on a collision course, but it is your responsibility to manage this disaster.

The analogues aren't perfect, but I think we would villainize a general, who deliberately kept his child's unit out harm's way by throwing other units in to certain death to cover them. We would villainize a dispatcher, who, learning of a massive hillside fire -- as hits California from time to time -- sent the firefighters to his house to rescue his children first, though they must pass several other houses on the way.

--Logoboros

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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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tribrats
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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Why should I feel shamed that I chose my own children over people I didn't even know? I am a MOM first and foremost. I would feel more shame in knowing my babies died because I chose to save some nameless people. If I had the choice of only saving one train, it would be the one with my children. I could never live with myself if I ever thought my kids might think I loved 1500 strangers more than I loved them.

Besides, how could I be the only one there? Or do trains always get put on the same track with each person on the boards loved ones? Maybe I could help Jenn save both trains on her track then she could help me? Then we would work together and save 3050 people!

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Logoboros
We Three Blings


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I started to do this as an edit to my earlier post, but I think it's worth excerpting at somewhat greater length. This is from William T. Vollmann's six-volume essay on violence, Rising Up, Rising Down. Pardon me for quoting somewhat at length, but I think Vollmann does a great job of working through the kind of moral choice (in this case a real one) that we are making something of a game of. Also, quoting a heavily abridged page from a work that takes up a full 12 inches on my bookcase seem like presenting little more than a pithy epigram.

quote:

I read recently about an activist who was tortured in a political prison by being forced to watch her child being tortured in front of her.... Behind a pane of glass she saw a struggling little figure. Perhaps they opened a vent, so that she'd hear its cries; almost certainly they arranged for it to see her there.... If she did not betrayed her comrades (authority said), on her child would now fall the torments she knew so well. Which loyalty would the desperate woman then betray? She kept silent, and watched her child died screaming.

No one will ever to how she actually chose. We know only that she did not choose to save her child -- a choice, indeed, which might well have been spurious; after she'd talked, mother and child might both have been dispatched. Here were possible courses of action:

1. Speak, and hopefully preserve her child.
2. Refuse to speak, and thereby protect others.
3. Refuse to participate in authority's scheme (asserting, in effect, that if they murdered her child it was all their doing).
4. Vacillate; make no decision.

Only the first act would have revealed the woman's true moral calculus -- a valuable lesson for moral medal-pinners and stone-casters. All three other non-Ghandian possibilities must produce the same primary result -- silence -- and the same secondary result -- a dead child. But to the protagonist herself, the exact reason she closed her lips might have mattered a good deal. Did she allow her child to die for some arguably good reason, or did she simply allow it to die? If she did have a reason, then she, like the Warsaw ghetto mother who suffocated her crying baby so that did Nazis would not discover the people in her bunker (in which case the baby would have died in any case), was a true heroine. Had she'd chosen to save her child at the expense of her comrades, she would also be a heroine to me. Either way, I'd bow down to her because she made a choice in an intolerable situation. Necessity gave her two alternatives each of which might have destroyed her. Plato describes the greatest folly of all as being "that of a man who hates, not loves, what his judgment pronounces to be noble or good, while he loves and enjoys what he judges vile and wicked." The mother's torturers sought to force that folly on her, to transform what she loved and enjoyed, her child, into a vile implement of traitorousness. They sought to make evil and dishonor inevitable. Let's hope that the mother did not turn away, that she did not make her decision by default.

--Logoboros

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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."

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Jenn
Layaway in a Manger


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quote:
Originally posted by tribrats:
Maybe I could help Jenn save both trains on her track then she could help me? Then we would work together and save 3050 people!

Except that we probably have only minutes to make the decisions and execute the plan. You can't apply that kind of reality and logic to these questions. They aren't supposed to be realistic. In reality, there would be an emergency power shut off to all tracks so you wouldn't have to make these choices. Forget the scenario because it's secondary. The question is, would you save 1500 anonymous people, a handful of loved ones, or none of them? The plausibility of the scenario is beside the point.

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tribrats
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I would stick with my original choice. I would save my loved ones.

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Logoboros
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quote:
Originally posted by tribrats:
If I had the choice of only saving one train, it would be the one with my children. I could never live with myself if I ever thought my kids might think I loved 1500 strangers more than I loved them.

Of course, if your children die, then you don't have to explain anything to them. But if they live, you'll have to explain (and they will be burdened with the knowledge) that each one of their lives was purchased with the death of 60 other people. I think that's a pretty horrific burden to live under.

And perhaps this is a bit mean-spirited of me, but let's ramp up the dead child factor. Say you know that on the one train are your three children. On the other are train are 180 other mothers' children. All the other mothers are watching this disaster unfold on television, with you at the controls, the only one who can alter the outcome. Does your decision remain exactly the same? Maybe it does. If you were one of the other mothers in the stands, looking down at yourself, would you say "She did the right thing!"?

--Logoboros

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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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tribrats
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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But now you are changing the parameters of the OP. Since that has changed, why should I not believe that there is now a kill-switch that I can hit to stop both trains? Or that it only looks like the trains are going to hit but they are really on 2 different tracks. You can't change just what you need to in order to make your point. Also, I know you assumed that the individual is in control of the trains but that is not how I read it. I presumed that the individual was witness to this and I honestly don't see where it says that the individual is the responsible party.

And no, it wouldn't change my mind. Why would I feel better because my kids would never know because they are dead? I would know that I allowed my family to die because society would villainies me otherwise.

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Jenn
Layaway in a Manger


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quote:
Originally posted by tribrats:
But now you are changing the parameters of the OP.

Not really. Everyone is someone's child.

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Dogwater
Happy Holly Days


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I would be most interested to see some statistics regarding choice vs. parental status:
1. People who choose to save the train with their child on board (and are parents)
2. people who choose to save the 25 train and aren't parents in real life
3. vice versa

As for me, and without hesitation, I'd save the train with my children on it. And, further, it is the very fact that my kids are on the train that causes me to make that decision. I think that if my kids were not on the train, I'd sacrifice the "fasmily-sans-kids" train -- save the most people.

If I were to break down my thought process, it'd be that the "adult" family members would expect from me the "needs of the many" decision. But, and many would agree, I'd die and kill for my kids. This falls under the "kill for my kids", doesn't it?

Now, I wonder, are these feelings due to a hard-wired parental reaction or how I was raised? Nature vs Nurture...or both?

As for question #2, I'd sacrifice myself. I think that it's much easier for us to sacrifice ourselves rather than others.

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Finite Fourier Alchemy
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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This is interesting.

Jenn and Logobros are stating the situation is completely without context, but at they same time they are (unconsciously, I'm sure) writing the context to favor their pre-made decisions. (Or else stating the context they assumed when they made the decision.)

I restate my option of refusing to take part in such a situation, with my (unconscious?) assumption that there is an Evil Force prompting me to make the decision, and my only acceptable solution is to refuse to take any action.

ETA: In tribrats's case, let's say that her family and friends include Jesus Christ, recently returned for the comeback tour, and let's say the train o'strangers, though having 180 children aboard, those children are surrounded by 300 child molesters, and let's say Ann Coulter and the Antichrist (but I repeat myself) are onboard as well.

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tribrats
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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Dogwater, I think you said what I have been trying to figure out how to say so much better than I ever could. Thank you.

Remove the kids aspect and I could easily chose to save the train with the many. As long as my kids are involved, they will be on the train to be saved. No matter the cost.

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Logoboros
We Three Blings


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I'm not saying that it has to be completely without context. And I "changed the parameters" not to try to somehow disprove your earlier decision, but just to better reveal the mechanism by which you arrived at it.

At first your seemed to emphasize that it was your children vs. "nameless people." I was just curious if it makes a difference if those weren't so nameless. And apparently it does not.

It is a stretch to assume that it's the person's job to work the switch. And, from my perspective, it doesn't really matter. A good public servant and a good citizen should be expected to behave essentially identically, as I see it.

And as an individual, your choice might make you a great parent. As an citizen, it makes you a bad member of society -- that is, unless you would honestly say that if you were watching a stranger working that switch, you would praise them for making the same choice you are making. Hypocritical morality may be great for preserving your family over all others, but it's lousy for preserving society.

--Logoboros

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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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Brillo Bee
Wii Three Kings


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The thing I can't get out of my head is not knowing who is on the other train. What if you sacrificed your family for the 1500, and later learned that the 1500 were all already terminally ill and within weeks of dying anyway? Part of the original scenario is that you don't know who is on that train or anything about them. It would make it tough for me to sacrifice my family for them, not knowing who they are.

My answers:
1: Probably do nothing. Partly out of panic, but also partly because I think I would have a hard time actively killing a trainload of people, even if it were to save another trainful of people. Even if it were 1 stranger on train A and 250 of my dearest friends and family on train B, I'd have a hard time ejecting train A. And then I'd feel guilty for the rest of my life.

2: Are we assuming that at the time of the decision, I am 100% sure that diving onto the tracks will both kill me and save everyone else? If not, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't do it. If so, I'd love to say I'd sacrifice myself, but I'd probably be paralyzed with fear.

Bee

ETA: Not that I think these are necessarily the best options morally, just that these are what I would be most likely to do.

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tribrats
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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I don't see it making someone a bad member of society. That is once again societies way of judging people. Society has beaten into people that the only "right" answer is to sacrifice your own. I don't agree with that.

Then again, maybe it is just the maternal animal instinct coming out. We are after all just another animal on this planet trying to pass on our bloodline.

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Logoboros
We Three Blings


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Admittedly, the train example is abnormally high stakes. But if the general principle applies that the proper morality is "The life and happiness of my children over all others," then you have a society in which you could never trust a parent, because a parent has the moral right to stab you in the back at a moments notice if their child's position might be advanced (which, yes, I realize is different from saying "their child's life is in danger," but these are still on the same continuum, and, as always, knowing where one draws the line is a problem with such a moral system).

And, of course, if we really were just parental animals, we could do what many mammals do, and deliberately kill the children of others, so that our children have more resources and a better chance for a good life.

I would like to be like Vollmann in the passage I quoted above and be able to see heroism in the parent who chooses to save their child even at the expense of their fellow man. I choke a bit on that point, but I accept it intellectually. But his conclusion is even more important -- its moral imperative lies in the deliberateness and consciousness of that choice.

But once one tries to displace responsibility, then the choice becomes weakness and not heroism. My concern is with saying "it's not a choice I can 'think' about; I'm compelled to make the choice because of instinct." That sounds like caving in to fear and emotion rather than making a conscious choice based on principle.

--Logoboros

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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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