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Posted on May 27th 2018

Academic Corner - What is the right thing to do?

This was the challenging and worthy subject of a recent Academic Lecture. You have £30; should you buy something for yourself or spend it on a friend? You’ve forgotten to buy your mum a birthday card; do you admit you don’t care enough about her to remember or lie and say it got lost in the post?

For centuries philosophers have tried to come up with water-tight, fail-safe equations to apply to any situation you might find yourself in and establish what the ‘right’ thing to do is. In order to find answers to these tricky scenarios we considered two of the most famous ethical theories: utilitarianism and rule-based theories.

Utilitarianism argues that an action is right if it produces the highest utility (utility being the overall balance of pleasure and pain produced by an action). Bentham, the famous 18th Century ethicist, stated ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do’.

In contrast to Utilitarians, Kant, another 18th Century philosopher, argued that acts are right or wrong in and of themselves, because of the kinds of acts they are and not simply because of their ends or consequences. Duty is not based on the pain or pleasure of the outcome, but on a set of immovable moral principles; the categorical imperative.

To illustrate what these theories mean in practice, we looked to the ‘Trolley Problem’. This notorious dilemma outlines the following situation:

         
   

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

   
         

Both theories, rule-based and utilitarian, argue the best option is to pull the lever, thereby killing one person rather than 5. For the utilitarian this is because it’s a lesser evil to kill one person than five. For the rule-based ethicist, by pulling the lever you are acting in accordance with the principle that it is wrong to kill to avoid the deaths of five people. That this will result in the death of one person does not jeopardise your moral purity.

The dilemma becomes more interesting with the introduction of the ‘fat man’. In this problem, instead of a switch to divert the trolley there is a fat man on a bridge who, if you push off it, will stop the trolley, thereby saving the five people in its path but losing his own life in the process.

Interestingly men were more likely to be happy to sacrifice the fat man than women. People were also more likely to be happy to push the fat person off the bridge if they were male. So does this mean men always take a utilitarian, greatest-happiness approach when faced with moral dilemmas?

Finally, we considered Winston Churchill’s tactics during the Second World War. He, controversially, intentionally mislead German bomber planes during the Blitz so that they thought they were dropping their V-1 bombs on central London and Parliament, they were actually dropping them on areas of south London, considered to be less important, such as Bromley. He took a utilitarian approach – was it the right thing to do?

By Miss Heaton-Armstrong