I was listening to This American Life, a radio show on NPR. I listen to the free podcast every week, and I’m oftened surprised by the content. This episode’s theme was “Who can you save?” and they were talking about thought experiments. I’m gonna walk you through it:
Pretend you’re standing by the railway, and five men are working on the tracks. They can’t see the train approaching them, and you can’t warn them. But, next to you, you have a lever, and if you pull that, the approaching train will jump to another track. However, then the man on the train will die. Will you pull the lever to save the five?
Most people say yes, they will. Then the question is put a little differently:
Pretend you’re standing on a bridge over those same tracks. The same men are working on the tracks, the same train is coming. You don’t have a lever this time, but you do have a large man standing next to you. If you push that man over the edge of the bridge, make him land in front of the train, the five men will be saved, but that man will die. Would you push him?
Everyone says no! in a pretty horrified voice. But once you think about it, the outcome is the same. One person is killed to save five others. Somehow it’s ‘okay’ to kill someone with a lever, but you can’t push him yourself…I had the same reaction. I don’t know why. If you can explain what makes the difference, please tell me! The best I can do is that pulling a lever is killing indirectly..
A neurologist did some tests on this, and I think the different reactions stemmed from different parts of the brain involved in thinking about this. But I don’t really remember (I’m always a little hazy on technical details). You should listen to the episode on www.thisamericanlife.com if you want to know more about it..