Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Moral Dilemmas 101

So help me out here.

What's wrong now?

You told me about the trolley car, out of control, ready to run over five people.

Yes, that happens every day.

And so the driver, if she could, switches the tracks and the train now runs over only one person.

Right. The driver made a wise choice. Sacrificing one life to save five.

The more difficult dilemma is for the bystander. Does he throw a person onto the tracks to stop the trolley, given if he doesn't, five people will die?

Or maybe he feels that not doing anything is ok?

That's really the issue for me. Is it ok to do nothing?

I don't know. I remember when the man was beat up on the subway tracks in NYC and people just stood around. Imagine if we had laws against inactivity.

Yea... you don't jump in the pool to save the kid... then you could go to jail.

Or you don't learn CPR.

Or... you buy an expensive house rather than a cheap house, thereby diverting money from starving children.

Or... you don't take out a big life insurance policy before throwing yourself infront of the trolley, thereby eliminating a giant good deed to those in need. Is that acceptable and compassionate behavior?

Stay tuned to the next episode of Moral Dilemmas 101

5 comments:

Kate Freeman said...

Question: Why do we not expect the five people to take responsibility for their own lives? Why do I have to toss somebody in front of the trolley to save them? Why can’t they just jump out of the trolley’s way?

One time, I was on the bus and this guy with a gaping head wound and blood covered-cloths got on the bus. One woman was screaming, “OH MY GOD! LOOK AT THIS MAN! I CAN”T BELIEVE HE IS WALKING!” The guy with the pulsing head wound sat down and the people sitting across from him got up and moved to the back of the bus. That might seem rude for them to do, but you didn’t see this guy. I don’t blame them for moving. This guy was a horror movie come to life. One guy didn’t get up and move. He sat there calm and asked the man what happened to his head. The bleeding guy says, “I walked into a fire hydrant. It was metal. It cut my head.” “YOU NEED TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL,” the woman yelled at him.

The bus just drove on like normal . . . well as normal as could be expected. Everyone seemed freaked out. I personally couldn’t take my eyes off the hole in this guy’s temple. The freaking wound was moving with the guy’s heart beat. Creepy. The bus driver didn’t call for an ambulance. Neither did anyone else. Nobody grabbed the first aid kit and tried to stop the blood. In retrospect, there were many things that I could have done or others could have done, but we didn’t do them. I often think about why none of us seemed to do those things that just seem so common scene to me now.

I can only try to answer for myself as to why I didn’t do anything. I had seen this man on the bus several times before, usually drunk and belligerent. I had long ago adopted the mindset to avoid this particular person for my own safety. I think this played a big part in my lack of motivation to do anything. Also I think I was in a state of shock as it was happening. I had never seen a wound like that. I still find it remarkable that the guy could talk and was moving around. Because he could talk, I felt like he could make his own decisions and I didn’t really have any say over what he wanted to do. If he wanted to bleed to death, that was his call.

What actually ended up happening was that the bus pulled up to the stop down by the hospital and the bleeding guy got off the bus. It was his normal stop. The woman was still yelling at him to go to the hospital. One guy got up and said that he would make sure the bloody man got to the hospital and he got off the bus. I changed my route after that so I never saw the guy again. And I did change my route in part because of this drunken bloody man.

So I no what it is like to be the inactive witness that allows bad thing to continue. And I know this sounds horrible, but it is truth. . . Even knowing that there was stuff I could have done to help, if I had to do it all over again, I don’t think I would have helped this man.

Anonymous said...

We are confronted with moral choices our entire lives. Almost never do we have the complete information to make a fully informed decision.The best we can hope for is that we have had a good batting average when we take our farewell bow. H.

Kim Mosley said...

We seem to have a double standard here. If we act "morally" we are good people. But there is no problem in our minds if we are just bystanders. I wonder where that came from? Imagine a world where the bystander was not innocent?

Kate Freeman said...

I don’t really perceive the double standard. I don’t think people are OK with being a bystander. I think the popular ideological moral standard would be to do something when something needs to be done. The reality is such that there are many obstacles and considerations that keep people from obtaining the ideological moral standard.

When I said that if I could go back I still wouldn’t help that bloody guy. . . It’s not because I am OK with being a bystander. There is conflict in my mind about this. I valued my safety above this man’s health. That’s what kept me from doing anything. I’m human. Sue me. And in all reality if being a bystander were criminal when all this occurred, I’d probably take my chances with the cops. This is me being moral by being honest with myself.

I can give you another bus example where the passengers just act as bystanders instead of taking some moral high ground and doing something to stop injustice.

Some crazy guy gets on the bus and screams, “I don’t care if you people are retarded, fuck all you people in the front! You see I have a kid! You won’t let me have a seat!” Now just a little back ground. There are mentally handicap people who ride the bus everyday and they do sit in the seats up front. But there were open seats. Nothing was stopping this guy from sitting up front except his mental state. This guy continued to scream and yell until the bus driver told him that the seats in the front were reserved for the disabled. He began to scream how not everybody up front was disabled. He then singled me and this older gentleman with a black hat out. “Those two aren’t fucking retarded!” The bus driver told him that sometimes illness isn’t visible. He shut up for a bit.

When the bus got to the metro link station, dude started to go crazy again. Screaming, cussing, mad, craziness. Guy with the black hat took me by the arm and said, “Walk faster girl.” When the screaming guy with the toddler in his arms didn’t get a rise out of us, he turned his attention to a woman who wasn’t even on the bus when he got on. Woman was real confused. She screamed at him for a while. Didn’t do any good.

The next day when I got on the bus, everyone was crammed at the back of the bus. Wanna guess why? So we are all bystanders changing our behavior to pacify some mentally-off freak who terrorized us the day before. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? I’m not ok with it. In fact I’m really pissed off about it. But I ain’t going to be the one who confronts crazy-screamy-man. So even if it was illegal to remain a passive bystander. . . I’d take my chances with the cops in this case.

What happened to screamy? He got on the bus the day after his outburst. He had the whole front section to himself. He smiled and played with his child. Almost normal. Nobody said anything to him. I haven’t seen screamy since that day.

Anonymous said...

The range of possibilities is overwhelming. As a bystander are you morally required to help a victim if you are an arthritic 80 year old man or woman confronted by a 240lb bully wielding a matte knife with which he has already sliced a 24 year old fancy woman? Its easier if you are the 240 lb linebacker type confronting the 80 year old woman who has sliced the 24 year old woman. still not simple, but circumstances do make a difference. I am always thrilled by tales of heroism.

I would like to be the heroic figure in my families eyes.
I remember when my Uncle Julius, all 5 foot 2 of him, was in his late 60's, stopped off the bus at Delmar and Hamilton to purchase a bottle of New Year's cheer at a booze store, upon exiting, he was confronted by two muggers, one grabbed him from behind and held him around his neck. Uncle Julius bent down , reached between his legs, grabbed the mugger by the family jewels and squeezed for all he was worth. My uncle was a wonderful man with a keen intellect and a love for music and literature, but that story is his legacy for me. He would have been a good man to ask difficult moral questions. Hans