To flip or not to flip?

Discussion in 'Ethics, Morality, & Justice' started by James R, Feb 26, 2021.


Read the opening post first. Do you flip the switch, or not?

  1. I believe in a god or gods and I would flip the switch.

  2. I believe in a god or gods and I would not flip the switch.

  3. I do not believe in any gods and I would flip the switch.

  4. I do not believe in any gods and I would not flip the switch.

  5. I don't want to answer the poll. Just show me what other people have said.

Results are only viewable after voting.
  1. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    There's a nuance here I'm trying to express that I believe leads to a valid rationale for resolving the dilemma.

    I'm not saying the actual scenario might have any unknown qualifiers;
    I am saying the doubt about my knowledge of the world in general (and thus any scenario) always factors into any such decision process.

    In deciding what to do in any ethical situation, I always know that I can't know. Thus, the better cause of action is to not interfere. In other words, I'm not saying I can't decide what to do; I'm saying I can - and do - decide what to do, based on a general worldview of 'don't interfere unless you're sure you're right.'

    (It's the same principle that stops me from yelling at diagonal parkers in parking lots. For all I know, it's not their fault - the general principle always holds: do not interfere in something unless you know you have the facts.)

    That may not be the kind of answer you find valid; esp. since this is on the Religion section. Out of consideration, for the thread, I'll drop it.

    Moreover, I suspect you've got a plenitude of atheist responses, and need some theists to weigh-in. I'll step back and try to let the thread rebalance. Sorry about abandoning the 'spoiler' convention.
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2021
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  3. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    I think I've covered all the possibilities in the poll, here.
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  5. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    In this case, it's a runaway train. The people on the track might think they know where the train is, too.
    Does pretending that the 3 people are blameworthy in some way make the decision not to flip easier for you?

    Even in your initial response, you mentioned "3 drunks".
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  7. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    This idea of "taking a life" is interesting.

    It seems, Seattle, that you think that choosing to flip the switch means you're actively "taking the life" of the single person on the side track. But if you choose not to flip the switch, aren't you, by inaction, "taking the lives" of the three people on the main track? You could save them, if you chose.

    Does it matter that the consequence on the one hand involves deliberate action, while on the other hand it follows from inaction? If so, what is it about taking deliberate action that makes it a bad choice to flip the switch?
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2021
  8. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    It may well turn out that after the fact, for whatever reason, the 3 people were in some sense "less deserving" of life than the single person. But we don't know that in advance. The exact opposite might be true, instead, or the people might all be similar according to whatever criteria you're using to measure who "deserves" to live.

    In the face of that, you still have to make a choice. You apparently think that letting fate take its course is the best thing to do, in the face of uncertainty. If that's correct, can you explain why?
  9. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Did you vote in the poll, kx000?

    What has this scenario got to do with protecting nature as a whole?
    How is the existence of an afterlife relevant to your decision?
  10. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member


    Something doesn't ring true about that.

    If you can't be sure you're right about any ethical situation - and you say you can never be sure - then your choice would be to avoid making any ethical decision wherever possible, according to your reasoning.

    Suppose there was one person on the main train track and nobody on the side track. Would you flip the switch in that case?

    You can't be sure that the person on the main track is not a serial killer, or Hitler.

    Relax. There's no absolutely right or wrong answer to the poll question.

    I'm not claiming that my answer is right and yours is wrong, or that I have the high moral ground.

    It's not up to me to dictate what kinds of answers are "valid". This is an open discussion. What interests me is what influences people to decide one way or the other.

    This thread was started in the Religion subforum, because I thought we might see some statistical differences in responses from religious people, compared to non-believers. However, at this point in time there's insufficient data to draw any conclusions relating to believers vs non-believers. The poll will remain open, so eventually we might get to that. But I've decided to give the thread a new home in the Ethics subforum, because it seems likely that most of the discussion will be about the ethics itself, rather than differences between the ethical decisions of believers vs non-believers.

    Please don't, if you have more to add. It's an interesting discussion.

    It's okay. We're now several pages into the thread. I think most people who are honestly interested will answer the poll before reading past the first page.
  11. Seattle Valued Senior Member

    Yes, I'm don't want to be responsible for killing 1 responsible person for 3 who aren't. Anything wrong with that?
  12. Seattle Valued Senior Member

    I know that there's a lot more to any scenario than I'm initially aware of with just a few seconds notice. The physician's creed is to "Do No Harm", right. I'm not going to make a knee jerk decision that will result in the one person being killed due to my actions.

    You seem to come down of the side of numbers without caring about anything else. I didn't put those 3 on the track.

    If 3 strangers need both of your kidneys and your heart are you OK with me deciding that they should have them, all things considered?
  13. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    No. It's a valid response.

    Now, suppose all 4 people are responsible people - all fine, upstanding citizens, etc. What do you do in that case? Does it change your decision?
    Either way - flipping or not flipping - is a knee jerk decision. Well, maybe not, if you've thought about what you might do in such a situation, in advance.

    Your decision not to flip will result in three people being killed, instead of one. What is it that makes that okay, for you?
    It's not a matter of not caring about other things. I based my decision on the information I had.
    But you could save them.
    No. I'm not okay with that. I'm using my kidneys and my heart. They are mine to use, not yours.
  14. Seattle Valued Senior Member

    The single person on the side track is using his/her organs as well.

    Yes, my answer is the same even if all are outstanding people. Non-action isn't equal to action.

    Life isn't a numbers game IMO. Of course we can argue that numbers are involved all the time. That's why ultimately philosophical questions such as this are just an exercise in navel gazing IMO.

    We have seen threads such as this go on and on for hundreds of pages. Some find that useful, I don't. Maybe you are looking for Quantum Quack and Jan?

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  15. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Yes, and the three people on the main track are using their organs, too. If we're trying to preserve the maximum number of organs for their owners to use, then flipping the switch makes more sense than not flipping it.

    That's a view that a lot of people share.

    Do you think it would not be your fault if the three people die, but it would be your fault if you flipped the switch and the one person died? You would feel responsible for that one person's death, but not for the three people's deaths?

    It's interesting to unpack why you (and lots of other people) have the intuition that choosing to act is different from choosing not to act.

    I get you. So, can you point to what is more important than the numbers, in this scenario? Is it just the acting vs not acting thing, or are other things also relevant?

    The things that motivate people to act one way rather than another have real-world consequences, so I don't think this navel gazing, if you want to call it that, is entirely pointless. It's not just in hypothetical, somewhat artificial situations like this that people have to make life and death choices. Sometimes they also have to make difficult moral choices in real life, too. I also think that many of the considerations from these kinds of hypotheticals carry over into real-life decision making.

    Nobody is tying you down. If you've lost interest, you don't have to post in this thread. It's not compulsory.

    I'm interested to hear from anybody who wants to explain their reasoning.
  16. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    The law agrees.
    As I said, you could be sued for your part in the death of the one guy on the side track. You could not be sued for your lack of action in the deaths of the three.

    (And there's precedent for this. Many years ago, a guy was killed in a cardboard compactor. A woman saw it happening but did not help (though she called 911). She was not prosecuted.)
  17. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    The one example that springs to mind is performing triage during medical emergencies: can you choose the patients that will die so that you have a better chance of saving others. It's not really any different, is it. You could focus all your time saving one person, but that time could be spent saving three others who will now die.
  18. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    Well, when:
    - there is no time to properly assess
    - only two choices are available, and they must be chosen instantly, and
    - both actions clearly lead to egregious harm. (i.e. it is no-win scenario)
    the chance of mis-assessing the situation is high. Especially when the consequences are literally lethal.

    But ... in the real world, with sufficient analysis, those can be reduced to raise the level of confidence. Noting that the level of confidence only asymptotically approaches 100%.

    I have, in fact, developed a philosophy of 'all I know is that I know nothing' when it comes to being judgey. Unless I actually see a transgression in-progress, I must assume I don't know the story.

    A month ago, I watched a car pull into a grocery store parking spot all crooked and sticking out. This was a textbook transgression that I'd witnessed in real time. It passed my test, allowing me to (soto voce) call the guy A Bad Name.

    Then he stepped out. He was about 95, and frail and wearing a mask, and obviously his first time on the road in months just to get food.

    Imagine if I had acted, and given him a piece of my mind, Karen-style.

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    Yes. There's no downside (within reason).

    I've never espoused this idea that lives have varying value. If they are to be brought to justice, it's not here, by me.
  19. geordief Valued Senior Member

    The time factor is quite overwhelming.I cannot imagine any decision would feel satisfying afterwards (the consequences might hopefully be somewhat gratifying)

    In the lead up to the decision my judgement would be (even more than usually) impaired.

    I don't think I ascribe to "letting fate take its course" but that will asuredly happen if I don't make a decision.
  20. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    The nice thing about discussing this here is that if, by some bizarre set of circumstances, you're ever faced with a similar real-world situation, you will have had plenty of time to think about what the best course of action is.
  21. cluelusshusbund + Public Dilemma + Valued Senior Member

    @ Dave

    How about this change to JamesRs scenario:::

    You are drivin the train… an as usual it is programed to turn right at the switchyard… you can see ahead that 3 people on the track will be killed if the train turns right… but if you override the program to turn left only 1 person on that track will die… will you override the program an turn left... or allow the train to follow its program an turn right.???
  22. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    How does this materially change the original scenario?
  23. Seattle Valued Senior Member

    You are the driver and you have a duty to act.
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