The Trolley Car Revisited: Duty to Your Country?

split trackLast week on a blog entry about an online ethics and morals class at Harvard, I mentioned a scenario with a trolley car that I’d like to expand upon today with a poll. I will write about this from the perspective of an American, but you can insert your country wherever I talk about America.

Here’s the scenario:

You’re a trolley car operator and the brakes on the trolley have failed. You’re hurtling towards a split in the track–the trolley car must split in one direction.

Two men are working on the track, one on each of the splits. One of them is wearing a shirt that says, “Proud to be an American.” The other is wearing a shirt that says, “I’m not an American.” For the sake of this scenario, we are to assume that you know that the one man is American and the other is not.

In a few seconds, the trolley car will reach the divide and you will need to choose to collide with the American or the non-American. Or you can not choose either direction and let the trolley car veer one way or the other on its own. Unfortunately, the person you hit will die.

Whom do you spare? Whom should you spare? Do you have an obligation to your country to choose the non-American?

I know that sounds like a terribly callous question, and hopefully none of us will ever face that decision. I hope you also won’t assume any bias on my part for asking the question–I’m merely curious about our responsibility to our country.

In my mind, a human life is a human life. One of those men isn’t worth more or less than the other. It’s a monumental tragedy either way.

But if you live by the government’s example, each nation seems to put a greater value on its citizens than people from other countries. Perhaps that is solely the responsibility of the government, not on the citizens themselves. The armed forces will put military lives at stake to save a single American, but they may not take those same measures to save a non-American. I’m not saying that’s right, but that seems to be the precedent.

So is it your responsibility as an American citizen to choose to spare the American on the tracks? If so, why do you say that? If not, why not?

(If you’d like to think of this in a slightly less morbid sense, picture yourself as a helicopter rescue pilot. You’re flying low over a raging river and can choose to save one person: An American or a non-American. The person you don’t choose will succumb to the rapids. Whom do you spare?)

6 thoughts on “The Trolley Car Revisited: Duty to Your Country?”

  1. I watched the trolley “episode” and I think it’s an interesting question. It also made me think of a very real debate that’s going on in the media and in our government….at the risk of opening a can of worms on your blog post, what about abortion?

    We essentially are choosing the rights of one person (the woman) over the rights of another (the child) when we say that abortion is ok. I know every argument posed by pro-choice supporters and I honestly don’t think anyone in that camp is super excited about killing babies….from what I’ve understood, the pro-choice movement is about empowering women to make the choices that are best for them.

    So, if the same trolley car were to be hurtling down tracks and to the left is an unwanted baby (rape, incest, poverty, birth defect, etc) and to the right is a wanted baby. Which one do you choose to live?

  2. I don’t know how anyone could “choose” one person over the other, especially based on their country alone. What if the person on the other track was Mother Theresa or Ghandi?They’re not Americans and have done great and holy things for many people around the world. What if the American was Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy? Like you said Jamey, who are we to say who’s life is of greater value? Only God can know our hearts and what plans He has for us. By choosing one over the other, we take His will into our own hands and therefore change the course of society forever in some exponential way that we don’t know. I’m really happy to see the poll numbers at 92% choosing “let the tracks decide”, meaning that many people just couldn’t make that monumental decision on their own.

    Ansley brings up a great point about abortion, and one that is probably my biggest passion in life. Defending life at all stages, especially the weakest among us, which is the unborn. I’ve been sidewalk counseling for a while now and have seen the inner struggle on the women’s (and men’s) faces about the “choice” they are about to go through with. So many of them just need help, whether it’s financial, spiritual or emotional, and that’s why we stand out there and offer that to them. It’s the greatest joy in the world when a woman’s heart is softened and her eyes open to realize that she carries such a precious child within her. Life is a gift from God. Only He can give and take it away.

    Thanks for such a great post/topic of discussion. I’m going to pose this question to friends/family and hopefully have a fruitful discussion on the value of life! 🙂

    • Leandra–Definitely, the question assumes that you know nothing about the two people. There are many interesting directions to take with this framework beyond the American question. What if you’re choosing between an old person and a young person? A proven criminal or an innocent citizen? A cat or a dog?

      My answer is to let the tracks decide. I’m just not sure that’s the right answer since it is my choice to live in America. Do I have a duty to my fellow Americans? That’s what I’m trying to get at in this post.

      • Clearly the answer is dog. Since the other has 9 lives. 😉

        But I do understand what you’re trying to get at. I just could never, in any circumstance choose one person’s life over the other. Unless it was in defense of my own life or that of my children, or anyone else. I would hope I would be brave/selfless enough to jump in front of a bullet or a train or a herd (is that right?) of zombies for anyone.

        • I think zombies travel in herds (or hordes?) That’s admirable of you to say. Except the cat part. First I’d want to know why Biddy was working on the train tracks in the first place.

      • I think it’s admirable to think patriotically, but a life is a life. An American has no more right to live or die than a Brit, South African, Kiwi or Brasilian. I think most people would sacrifice a man before a woman, an adult before a child, etc….but country? I’m very patriotic but wouldn’t necessarily choose an American over someone else.


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