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July 23, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Philosoraptor

We all think that saving lives is good. But we also tend to think that we shouldn’t sacrifice a life in order to do so. This basic tension lies at the heart of the modern terrorist- thriller and has been exploited everywhere from Air Force One to 24. Jack Bauer gets our twisted respect just because he isn’t afraid to sacrifice lives for the greater good. But most of us don’t have his conviction, and that is comforting. But don’t be so sure.

A scenario known as the Trolley Problem has been confounding philosopher and mind scientists for decades on just this sort of problem. A train is hurtling down a track towards five people who have been tied to a track by some dastardly mustached villain. All five will die unless something stops the train in its tracks. You are on an overbridge watching this all unfold and you have two options. You can switch the train over to a side-track using the conveniently placed lever at your side.

But in this case you see that there is someone loitering on the side-track who will be taken out by the train. If this worries you, then luckily there is an obese fellow on the bridge with you, and you can push him down onto the tracks knowing that he’ll stop the train. Both situations are equivalent: you will save 5 lives at the cost of 1. What would you do?

Most people surveyed on this hypothetical choose the former track-switching option, and justify themselves by saying that they didn’t intend to sacrifice a life in that version, and it is just bad luck that the sidetrack is populated. But really what is the difference? In both cases we foresee a death and think that it is justified by the good it’ll bring about. The only difference is that we can’t make excuses about the cold execution of the obese man. Jack Bauer wouldn’t make excuses though. We are more like him than we imagine, perhaps we should act like it.

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