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?)