Utilitarian ethicsSomeone else asked the following question: How does Utilitarianism answer the following dilemma: A train driver comes to a point on the track. If he continues on he will kill 5...

Utilitarian ethics

Someone else asked the following question:

How does Utilitarianism answer the following dilemma: A train driver comes to a point on the track. If he continues on he will kill 5 people who are sleeping on the track. However, if he switches tracks he will kill one person who is sleeping on the track. What should he/she do and why?

Here's a slight new wrinkle: what if he recognizes that the one person is a world-famous doctor widely known to be very close to discovering the definitive cure for cancer?

Asked on by vangoghfan

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enotechris's profile pic

enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted on

If Utilitarianism holds that you must act in ways that provide the greatest possible good as #3 proposes, that you have to act such that you bring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people, then the greatest possible good in this situation would be for the driver to stop the train at all costs, and kill no one! Even if the train engine and track are destroyed in the process, their replacement is incidental next to the impossibility of replacing a human life, be it criminal or Nobel laureate.

Another wrinkle:  What if the great-grandson of one of the 5 derelicts turns out to be the scientist who discovers a free nonpolluting form of energy?

accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

This is a very harsh question, but I do agree with the majority of editors above in the way that utilitarianism focuses on the happiness for the greatest number of individuals. This means that the poor train driver would definitely spare the doctor because of the way that cancer is such a killer disease in today's society. The number of people that personally experience cancer and will experience it in the future means that this doctor could bring more happiness to the world as a whole than any number of homeless people. Sad but true.

literaturenerd's profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Similar to the posting you referenced, the importance in the lies in the fact of what death(s) would bring about the most happiness for the community. Knowing that the doctor is more "important" to the world, the driver would, most likely, spare his/her life. While there will surely be sorrow resulting from the five lives lost, the doctor would save far more.

vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I think that if the one person is a doctor of any kind, let alone one who is ready to cure cancer, the driver would spare him. It does not matter that there are five transients on the other tracks. The one doctor is worth more than the five. Now we just have to find out why he is sleeping on the tracks in the first place!

 

Thanks for a great answer!

litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I think that if the one person is a doctor of any kind, let alone one who is ready to cure cancer, the driver would spare him. It does not matter that there are five transients on the other tracks. The one doctor is worth more than the five. Now we just have to find out why he is sleeping on the tracks in the first place!
pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I disagree with the previous post -- well, at least with its conclusion.

Utilitarianism holds that you must act in ways that provide the greatest possible good.  You have to act such that you bring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people.  Importantly, this is within your whole society.

The amount of happiness the doctor will bring is much greater than the amount of happiness the five homeless people will bring.  Yes, of course, there will likely be more sad families if you kill the five, but that is not the only thing you have to consider.  You have to consider all of society.  The number of lives saved by the cancer doctor is going to be much greater than 5 and so you are most clearly bringing more happiness to society by allowing the doctor to live.

belarafon's profile pic

belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Well, first he would stop time and ponder why a world-famous cancer doctor is sleeping on train tracks! :D

Seriously, though, I'm not sure this is an answerable variable. Remember we are dealing with an absolute hypothetical; the train driver has no other choices other than to kill the one or the five. If he is close enough to recognize the doctor... well, he's already committed to that path. He might feel tremendous guilt over the accidental death, but at that point there is still no decision he can make that would change things.

So let's say, all things being equal, that the train is slow enough for him to be heading around the curve, see the fork, and assess the situation. He can see the five homeless people on one side, and the cancer doctor on the other -- the cancer doctor famously wears a bright yellow raincoat everywhere, with the bio-hazard symbol on it. Our driver thinks thusly:

"I can kill the doctor, who might or might not cure cancer, therefore saving millions of lives, or I can kill the five homeless, who may not do anything important in the future but who by themselves are a net gain of four lives at the immediate moment. Other doctors can continue his work, but no one will ever bring back those four other people."

The dilemma therefore is the same. If he is acting by pure utilitarian standards, he will stay on his track and kill the doctor, saving five lives immediately. Of course, considering that he will be investigated for negligence and probably lose his job and livelihood, he might consider jumping off the train himself.

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