Whenever a nation has done something deeply embarrassing, which shames its decent citizens, moral philosophy thrives. As though the obvious atrocity can somehow be hidden behind sophisticated reasonings about abstract thought experiments. Psychologists must have some fancy name for this phenomenon.
We live in such a time now. You cannot open the New Yorker or the New York Times Magazine without running into a conundrum designed by the best and the brightest to teach us lessons on moral values. The difference between us and the ancients is that we look to science, not religion, as the source of our values. Thus, neuro-scientists emerge as the Deep Thinkers of our time. Supposedly their knowledge of how our brain is wired allows them to deduce ab initio what is right and wrong.
One the most fundamental of these puzzles is the Trolley problem. It goes something like this.
On your morning walk, you see a trolley car carrying five passengers. It is hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over the controls. The passengers are oblivious to the danger. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five people. Unfortunately, the trolley would then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur. Is it permissible to throw the switch, killing one man to save five? Almost everyone says “yes.”
But wait a minute. Here is the twist. The single worker is Mr. Average Joe, who is working an extra shift so he can pay off his mother’s hospital bill. You just received a text message identifying the five conscious occupants of the Trolley car as Steven Pinker, Niall Ferguson, Philippa Foot, Judith Jarvis Thomson and Joshua Greene. (You are carrying an iPhone. Duh.) And you have just enough time to Google these names before making the decision.
Now, which way would you throw the switch?
Who is more valuable? Five moral philosophers or an honest working man?
Those with the correct answer will be entered into a raffle for the complete works of Ayn Rand.