What is the right thing to do?

By Abel Merawi

Trolley-ProblemSeptember 25, 2019 (Ezega.com) -- Life is a journey for every one of us. It presents us with various situations that test our physical and moral limits. There are some situations that clearly show the distinction between right and wrong, making our choices simple. However, there are also situations that blur the line between right and wrong, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. Let us begin by considering a famous situation that confronts us with a moral dilemma. It is called ‘The Trolley Problem,’ which was introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967. It poses moral questions by presenting the following scenario:

Imagine that you see a runaway trolley (train) moving towards five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the main track. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply, what is the right thing to do?

It would be nice if you answer the above question for yourself now, and revisit your response after reflecting upon the following considerations. The moral question in ‘The Trolley Problem’ can be approached from the perspective of Utilitarianism and Deontological Ethics. Your response to the above question can reflect on the way you handle life. The choices you make every day are reflections of subconscious conclusions you have made regarding morality.

The individuals that choose to save the five people and kill the one person mostly hold a utilitarian view to the world. As explained by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, utilitarianism is a doctrine that states that the useful is the good. The aim is attaining the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Accordingly, the life of five people is more important than the life of one. Whether we realize it or not, we see people and nations following this doctrine. For instance, most slave owning nations are dominated by whites, thus the pleasure of the majority white outweighs the pleasure of the minority slaves. In ancient Rome, Christians were thrown into the coliseum, an amphitheater in which contests and spectacles are held, to fight to the death with lions because the majority of Romans find it entertaining. Various laws that oppress a minority are passed because they benefit the majority. Can we really say that it is permissible to sacrifice a small number of people in order to save the life of a larger number? Consider a drone attack that is launched to kill a terrorist hiding amongst civilians, to save the lives of people he would attack with no regard to the lives of the civilians surrounding him. Consider building a stadium at the expense of an orphanage because it brings more benefit to others. We have heard of the campaign against the orphans in Ethiopia, but I ask if it is morally right for a country to have golf courses and vast lands for private investors and yet no government funded orphanages. Defending the helpless may not be profitable as defending a company, but it is the morally right thing to do.

Those who refuse to sacrifice the life of one person to save the lives of five in ‘The Trolley Problem’ are people who accept the deontological ethics. Deontology is the science related to duty or moral obligation. Immanuel Kant is the famous philosopher who favored this doctrine by calling it ‘Categorical Imperative.’ For Kant, there is a law that binds rational human beings regardless of their individual interests. He proposes two principles to test the morality of our actions. (I) Act only on principles that we could universalize without contradiction. This means, if you allow one person to do something then everyone in the world should also be allowed to do it. Thus, we should imagine what it would do to the world if all of us do it. (II) Act in such a way that you always treat humanity never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end. In simple terms, your pleasure or profit should not be met by sacrificing others. Accordingly, none of us have the right to kill a single person even if it saves the lives of five people.   

At this juncture, I assume that each of us will consider the response we gave to the ‘The Trolley Problem’ in light of Utilitarianism and Deontological Ethics. It is easy to see the manifestations of these doctrines in the decision we make and the interactions we have with others. When shopkeepers raise the price of a product or when taxi drivers overcharge you, they are maximizing the pleasure or profit at your expense. When an ethnic or religious group fights to get privileges that others do not have, it is attempting to increase its pleasure at the expense of others. When any company lowers the salary of employees or creates false scarcity to inflate the price, it is only seeking to increase its profit at the expense of others. When we consider the bigger picture, such mentality destroys the society we live in by eroding the fabric of the society built upon trust.

So, what is the right thing to do? Being morally right requires basing our decisions on rational or logical foundations. As Kant stated, there should not be contradictions when we universalize our actions. If we have the right to earn undeserved profits or pleasure, we should be willing to be swindled in return and imagine a world filled with dishonest individuals. Contrary to this, if we all do onto others as we want them do onto us, then we will create the trust necessary to progress together. Everyone has the right to live and to benefit from the resources the world provides, so no one ought to be sacrificed for the sake of others. The morally right is the one that we all can do without intentionally causing harm to others.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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