Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Moral and Ethical Choices

Dr. Richard Schloss posed the following conundrum recently:

The following 2 vignettes are sometimes used to illustrate that there
are universal moral standards that transcend religion, culture, and
ethnicity, because everyone, regardless of background or belief system,
always gives the same answers. See what you think.

Suppose there is a runaway trolley car that is about to mow down and
kill 5 people. Now suppose that there is one observer standing next to
the track watching this, and he realizes that, by throwing a switch, he
can divert the car onto a different track so that it will kill only one
person, but spare the other 5. Virtually everyone says that the morally
correct thing to do is to throw the switch and sacrifice one person to
save 5; most even go so far as to say that it would be morally
reprehensible for him just to stand there and do nothing, once he
realizes that throwing the switch is an option.

Now, a different scenario: there is a hospital with 5 patients who will
die very soon if they do not receive organ transplants, and there are no
donors immediately available. (They all need different organs.) Now,
suppose someone is brought into the emergency department of that
hospital after having suffered a life-threatening, but easily
repairable, injury -- and he has and organ donor card in his wallet.
Would it be ethical for the ER staff to deliberately withhold treatment
and let him die so that his organs can be used to save the other 5
patients? Everyone says "no" to this question. Why? How is it different
from the trolley car scenario? Aren't they both cases of sacrificing one
to save 5? Why is it right to do so in the first case, but wrong in the
second? And why does everyone, regardless of background, give the same
answers to these two illustrations?

Just for fun, I'd like to throw a few qualifiers into the second
scenario. Would your answer change if the potential organ donor who can
be easily saved, but will die without treatment, had been driving drunk?
Would it change if he were a paroled murderer? What about if he had been
speeding at the time of his accident and had killed a family in another
vehicle?
Discuss.