Who Shall Live, and Who Shall Die

SiBaw muses:

A Question of Morals and Ethics…

There are many interpretation and arguments as to what is ethics and what is the origin of ethical reasoning. One common line of reasoning as taught in many professional and theological capacities is “the golden rule” or the ethic of reciprocity. Basically, one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. Another line of reasoning is known as the greater good; wherein the solution that benefits the most people is the most ethically sound. Those theories sound reasonable and rather agreeable. However, while those explanation should for the most part answer a significant portion of ethical dilemmas, there are many that do not fall within their domain or worse, some of these ethical conundrums question the validity of these premises. So here is one that I was always troubled by, a quintessential classic ethical dilemma.

Hypothetically, let us say one was standing in the middle of train-yard right next to a railway manual switch. Currently there is a runaway train fast approaching the juncture. (Such as in Runaway) In its current path there are three people on that segment of the track who will definitely be killed by this speeding train. However, if you flip the switch and send the train down the other track, those three people will live, but one person on that segment of the track will be killed because of your actions. The question is, do you flip the switch? Under the reasoning of the greater good, one would be obligated to flip the switch. However, under The Golden Rule things become a little murkier. Who’s perspective are we supposed to protect? Personally, I always contended that I wouldn’t be able to flip the switch because I couldn’t in good conscience kill another human being in any capacity.

This is British philosopher Philippa Foot’s classic Trolley Problem, extensively analyzed over the last half century in the literature of both academic moral philosophy as well as the Halachah, as documented by the erudite and indefatigable Menachem Butler:

Some months ago I mentioned that during a recent North American lecture tour, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks took part in a public conversation with Prof. Michael Sandel, whose amazingly popular seminar on “Justice” at Harvard University is available online; and just two weeks ago, I received an update from a friend in Cambridge, Mass., that a video of “Judaism and Justice – A Conversation Between Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Professor Michael Sandel,” was now available online at the Harvard Hillel’s website. In that earlier post at the Michtavim blog, I mentioned how the first episode of Sandel’s Harvard seminar on “Justice” — “The Moral Side of Murder” available here — discusses Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem, which has been discussed within rabbinic literature, as noted in the recent articles by Michael Harris, “Consequentialism, Deontologism, and the Case of Sheva ben Bikhri,” Torah u-Madda Journal 15 (2008-2009): 68-94, esp. 93n56, available here; J. David Bleich, “Sacrificing The Few To Save The Many,” Tradition 43:1 (Spring 2010): 78-86, available here, and which follows on the immediate heels of an article published several months ago by Gerald J. Blidstein, “Talmudic Ethics and Contemporary Problematics,” Review of Rabbinic Judaism 12:2 (2009): 204-217, available here.

R. Yosef Aryeh Lorincz (son of the famous Haredi politico R. Shlomo Lorincz) also discusses our topic in his valuable encyclopedia of the Halachah of life and death Mishnas Pikuah Nefesh.1

  1. משנת פיקוח נפש (האיר יוסף) (תשס”ג) שער ה’ סימן מ”ט []

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