Ethics is the study of right and wrong and as such, it means different things to different people. In a recent small group meeting for Berkeley Connect in Philosophy, some of those differences were discussed and debated. Berkeley Connect mentor Erica Klempner, who recently received her PhD in Philosophy, studies ethics extensively. She challenged students with two classic ethical dilemmas and a set of questions for group discussion.

The first ethical dilemma is known as “organ transplant” and it supposes that you are a doctor with five patients in need of various organ transplants. Without those organ transplants, all five patients will die. The dilemma arises when an innocent bystander arrives at the hospital and you, the doctor, now must choose to either let this innocent bystander walk away while your five patients die, or to kill the innocent bystander and get the sufficient organ supply needed to save all five patients.

With this dilemma, there is consensus across the general public and the philosophy community that it would be morally impermissible to kill the innocent bystander even if it means the likely survival of all five patients. As a result, it doesn’t seem like an extremely valuable ethical dilemma. However, there is another version that produces far more interesting responses.

The second ethical dilemma is known as “the trolley problem,” one of the most famous and recognizable ethical dilemmas. This scenario supposes that you are on a train or trolley hurtling down a track at speeds far too fast to stop quickly. Ahead, you see five people on the track, unable or unwilling to move away before your train will hit them. You also see a second track that splits from the first, allowing you to avoid the five people entirely. Unfortunately, there is one person on that track also unable or unwilling to move before you reach them. The dilemma is whether you should pull the lever in your trolley to switch to the second track, thereby killing the one person, or stay on the first track, allowing the five to die.

Despite having essentially the same basic conditions – a five-to-one tradeoff with inaction leading to five deaths and action leading to the direct killing of one person – there is no consensus at all on this dilemma, making it a far more intriguing puzzle.

After introducing these ethical dilemmas, the mentor proposed some questions for discussion: (1) What is the right thing to do? and (2) Why might someone think that it’s right to either act or do nothing?

Students quickly jumped into spirited small group discussion, arguing over small details like whether the patients in the organ transplant would consent to the murder of the bystander to save their lives, and larger conceptual questions like what constitutes murder. The arguing was respectful and intellectual, creating a space for all opinions without judgment. Students tended to collectively agree that it was right to do nothing in the organ transplant scenario, because the choice was between murder and inaction, especially since these patients already were expecting to die because no organs had been provided up to this point. There was much less consensus about the trolley problem. Students pondered ideas such as whether guilt controlled action or inaction, or how to quantify the value of a human life.

Brought back together to discuss the questions as a group, the students made many excellent points and engaged in lots of back-and-forth with their mentor, with the mentor sometimes playing the role of devil’s advocate. One student made the point that it isn’t the fault of the person in the trolley that the other people are on the tracks, making it morally permissible to not act (thereby allowing the five to die). The mentor then responded with a counter-scenario where someone is walking through a park and hears a child drowning in a lake because they can’t swim. She used this example to illustrate something that could be a point of ideological inconsistency because most people would feel obligated to act even though it wasn’t their fault the child was drowning.

By the end of the discussion, the nature of ethics and its applications were evident. Students challenged themselves and their peers on ethical assumptions and left with a better understanding of what makes an action right or wrong. It was an extremely deep and at times uncomfortable (in a good way) conversation that allowed students to put themselves in scenarios that hopefully they will never face in reality. If you were the trolley driver, would you pull the lever? The answer is extremely subjective, making this question an ideal way to understand ethics better.

posted by Dylan McIlvenna-Davis, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant (Class of ’20)