Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Trolley Problem

Thinking about the trolley problem can help prepare you for a difficult situation.

My family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1974 and experienced for the first time the thrill of riding a trolley. As my mother later remarked, "It scared me half to death, so I rode it two more times just for fun." Looking out the side windows of these aging steel carriages while crossing a 60 foot ravine over a wooden bridge with no guard rails often elicited a longing for one more chance to visit the confessional of your particular house of worship.

In the 1970's, a trip to town on a trolley was a religious experience.

In psychology circles the Trolley Problem is a device that has been used since the late 1960's to test moral decision making. In the test, you are standing on a bridge next to a large man. A train (or trolley) is about to pass under the bridge and will shortly strike and kill five people who are walking, unaware, on the railroad tracks.

You quickly (and correctly) deduce that you can save the five people by moving something large in front of the train, thus stopping/derailing it. For the purposes of discussion, the man standing next to you is sufficiently large, and your two choices are (and there are no others, you must choose one of these); do nothing and let the five people die, or push the large man onto the tracks, thus stopping the train, saving the five, but killing the large man.

Intellectually, killing one person to save five is an easy call. But could you do it? Could you actively, purposefully, intentionally kill a person, even if it meant saving five others. Again, you do not get to change the conditions of the test and for every clever "out" you come up with, I can change the test. For instance, you could sacrifice yourself by jumping in front of the train. I would counter that you are shackled, or injured, or too small.

The point is; you must choose. In the case of the Trolley Problem your choices are to either cause a person's death by your action, or allow five people to die by your inaction. Can you kill, even if it is to say another person (even yourself)? As a personal observation, if you find this exercise to be "simple", you may have "issues."

Some people cannot; under any circumstances, take another person's life, even if their own life is in immediate peril.

The point of this post is neither to advocate for or against killing in self defense, but rather to get you to think through your personal ethics and decide if you could, would, or can't - before the decision is forced upon you. Consider all situations.

  • Could you kill to save your wallet or purse?
  • Could you kill to avoid being dragged into a car?
  • Could you kill if *maybe* the next action an assailant took would knock you out?
  • Could you kill to save your child?
  • Could you kill to save someone else's child?

As a martial artist, you should know who you are, you should understand your moral parameters, and to the best of your ability you should know what boundaries, if any, you place upon yourself.

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