Charity collection tin. Homeless beggar. Busking with a guitar. A man washing windows.

Look at the above four pictures. What are the people doing? They all want you to give them some money. Which will you give money to and which will you ignore? Why did you make that choice?

Have you seen people doing things like this before? Did you give them money or not? What was your rationale at the time? Would you do the same again today?

Moral Dilemmas

10. Concentration Camp

You are an inmate in a concentration camp. A sadistic guard is about to hang your son who tried to escape and wants you to pull the chair from underneath him. He says that if you don’t he will not only kill your son but some other innocent inmate as well. You don’t have any doubt that he means what he says. What should you do?

9. The Accident

You are an emergency worker that has just been called to the scene of an accident. When you arrive you see that the car belongs to your wife. Fearing the worst you rush over to see she is trapped in her car with another man.

She sees you and although barely conscious, she manages to mouth the words “I’m sorry”…

You don’t understand, but her look answers your question. The man next to her is her lover with whom she’s been having an affair.

You reel back in shock, devastated by what her eyes have just told you. As you step back, the wreck in front of you comes into focus. You see your wife is seriously hurt and she needs attention straight away. Even if she gets attention there’s a very high chance she’ll die.

You look at the seat next to her and see her lover. He’s bleeding heavily from a wound to the neck and you need to stem the flow of blood immediately. It will only take about 5 minutes to stop, but it will mean your wife will definitely die.

If you tend to your wife, however, the man will bleed to death despite the fact it could have been avoided.

Who would you choose to work on?

8. Spam Filtering

You are the network administrator for a rather large company. You have a young family and need your job to support them. As part of your responsibility as a network administrator is to monitor the emails for the organization. Usually, this just means occasionally allow through emails for staff members that have been accidentally blocked by the spam filters.

One day you get a helpdesk request from a staff member asking for an email to get released. Normally it’s standard procedure except this time the request has come from the wife of a very good friend of yours. You recognize the name on the helpdesk request so quickly attend to the problem. As part of the procedure, you need to manually open up the email to ensure that it isn’t spam, so you do and you discover that it certainly isn’t spam. You find that it’s actually an email to your friend’s wife from her lover. You scan the rest of the contents of the email and there is no doubt that she has been having an affair for some time now.

You release the email, but you can’t decide what to do. Your initial reaction is to call your friend up and tell him about the email, however you quickly realize that company policy is very strict about revealing the contents of confidential emails of staff members regardless of the contents and unless someone’s life is in immediate danger, under no circumstances are you permitted to reveal the information.

In any case, you know that revealing this information presents a great risk because even if you don’t do it directly, there is a good chance that the dots will be joined somewhere along the line and you will be found out. However, you feel that by not telling your friend that you are aiding his wife get away with adultery and this troubles you greatly.

What do you do?

7. The Neighbor

You have a wonderful daughter. She is 8 years old and has always been a happy outgoing child. But a while ago something terrible happened, she was raped. You are quite sure that the person who raped her is your neighbour. Your daughter is so traumatized she has stopped speaking, but she in other ways been able to convince you that he is the one. Unfortunately, not enough evidence can be found to convict him.

You try to put your life back together. You move to another house and try to help your daughter in any way you can, but it is clear that the experience has ruined her life and that of your family.

One evening you have taken your wife out to dinner at a restaurant when you spot your former neighbour at another table. He is eating alone and looks unhappy. You quickly finish eating and leave. The next day you find out that your former neighbour’s wife has been murdered. Enough evidence to convict him of the murder is soon found, and at first you are very happy, finally, his will get what he deserves.

But then you remember that you saw him in the restaurant at the time of the murder. you know he did not murder his wife. Maybe he paid someone else to do it… You remember that the police said that it had been made it look like a burglary, maybe it was…

You sit down to think. If you keep quiet he will be convicted for the murder, and the real murderer will go free If you give him an alibi, he will go free, but you can’t be sure the real murderer will be found, and it is possible that the evil bastard paid someone to do it… What do you do?

6. The Pregnant Woman

A pregnant woman leading a group of people out of a cave on a coast is stuck in the mouth of that cave. In a short time the high tide will be upon them, and unless she is unstuck, they will all be drowned except the woman, whose head is out of the cave. Fortunately, (or unfortunately,) someone has with him a stick of dynamite. There seems no way to get the pregnant woman loose without using the dynamite which will inevitably kill her, but if they do not use it everyone will drown. What should they do?

5. Nieces and Daughters

You and your family are going away for the weekend. Your daughter is 7 and is best friends with your niece, who is also 7. Your families are very close and your daughter asks if your niece can come with you on your holiday. You have been on holidays together before and don’t see any problem, so you agree.

You arrive at your holiday destination and the house you are staying at backs onto a beach. The girls ask if they can go for a swim. You tell them that they have to wait until you have unpacked the car, but they can play on the sand directly in front of the beach. They run down to the sand, and you begin to unpack the car. After about 5 minutes, you hear screaming coming from the direction of the beach and it sounds like the girls.

You run down to see what the matter is, and you discover that they hadn’t listened to you and have gone for a swim. There is no one else on the beach and the girls are caught in a rip.

The girls are really struggling, particularly your niece who isn’t as strong a swimmer as your daughter.

You swim out quickly, but when you get there, you realize that there is no way you will be able to get both the girls back to shore on your own. You realize that an agonizing decision will need to be made.

You need to decide which of the girls you will rescue first, you have enough strength and energy to rescue them both, but you can only do it one at a time. You look at the two girls, and your niece is really struggling to hold her head above water and you know if you take your daughter back first, there will be little or no chance that she will survive.

Your daughter is struggling also but is much stronger in the water and you estimate that if you take your niece back to shore first, there’s probably a 50% chance that your daughter will be able to stay afloat long enough for you return, but you simply don’t know how long she will hold on for.

4. Hit and Run

One morning you are driving to work, and as per usual you are running a bit late, so you are driving a touch faster than the speed limit. You reach down to your stereo to change the CD when all of a sudden your car hits something solid. You spin to a stop, but not before several more cars have run into you and each other in an attempt to avoid the accident.

As you look up and out of your car, you can see that you hit a person and that the person is not looking very good. In fact, you are sure that they are dead. You shakily get out of your car and look around at the damage that has been caused. Several cars have been badly smashed up, but more importantly, you have killed someone with your careless driving.

As you are standing there in shock, a woman comes up to you, tears running down her face, and obviously very shook up. As a natural reaction, you ask her what is wrong. She gives you a funny look, and then she explains that she just ran over someone. You ask her where this person is, and she points towards the person that you ran over!

You don’t understand why, but for some reason, this woman thinks that she caused this accident and killed the person, when in fact you are well aware that you were the cause. Whoever accepts the blame is likely to be placed in jail for a very long time. If you let the woman take the blame, there is a very good chance you will get away with it all. However, there is also the chance that you could be placed in jail for even longer for trying to cover it up.

3. Drug Bust

You are on holiday in Bali with your 18-year-old son and wife. You have been there for a week and are ready to head home. All three of you are at the airport getting ready to board your plane when an armed officer comes around with a sniffer dog. You have all your bags on a trolley, and the dog sniffs at both your wife and your bag and passes over it, however when he gets to your son’s bag, he begins to get a bit more active.

You look over at your son and he’s looking a little nervous. You know he’s smoked a little marijuana in his time, but generally, he’s a good kid, and you certainly didn’t think he’d actually be stupid enough to bring it back on the plane with him. At first you feel angry that he would do such a thing and start planning your responsibility lecture, but then you realize that you are in Bali, and they have a zero-tolerance policy on drugs, meaning your son could be jailed for life, or worse, executed, if he does have some illicit materials in his bag.

You look at your wife and realize she has come to the same conclusion and has gone pale with fear.

The armed officer accompanying the dog is beginning to look more stern with every sniff the dog takes and looks directly at you and asks you to open the bag.

You do, and as the officer begins to take things out of the bag, you see to your horror that there is a small quantity of marijuana stashed in with your son’s belongings.

The officer looks at you and asks “Who’s bag is this?”

You realize you have to answer, but the answer won’t be easy. You see your wife in the corner of your eye, and she is about to step forward and claim it as her own; what do you say?

2. The Mad Bomber

A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high-level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree? If you do, would it also be morally justifiable to torture the mad bomber’s innocent wife if that is the only way to make him talk? Why?

1. Lifeboat

You are going on a cruise. 2 days into the cruise your ship experiences technical difficulties and the captain says it needs to make an unscheduled stop. A couple of hours later the captain makes another announcement that the ships hull has been breached and that you will all need to start heading to life rafts and abandon ship. The ships life rafts are lowered as people begin to pile in and you get on board one of the life rafts.

As it is lowered, however, it hits the side of the ship, putting a hole in the side of the raft, and when it hits the water it begins to sink. There are 10 people in the boat and to prevent it sinking, you quickly work out that by having 9 people working for 10 minutes while 1 person rests you can bail the water out with their hands, quick enough to keep the water at bay and preventing it from sinking, but you have to continually keep it up to ensure that the boat doesn’t sink. By being able to rest one person you are greatly able to increase the length of time you can keep the boat afloat, however, if the rescue team doesn’t turn up you calculate that within 5 hours the boat will sink and you will all die.

While taking your break, you glance over to another boat and notice that a friend of yours who you met on the boat is there and has noticed your predicament. He is signalling for you to come over and join them on their boat so you don’t have to continue bailing water out. There is only just enough room for one more person. You also notice that their boat is moving away rapidly with the current, but your boat can’t keep up because the hole is affecting its buoyancy.

You estimate that if you jump ship, you will force all 9 remaining crew members to bail water continuously, which will reduce the total time they can stay afloat to just 2 hours but will ensure that you will be able to live long enough to be rescued.

If you stay aboard, you will not have another chance to jump ship, and there’s no guarantee that the rescue will arrive in 5 hours, meaning you will drown, however by staying you give everyone a better chance of survival.
As you watch the boat with your friend drift away, you realize you have about 30 seconds to make a decision:

a) Do you stay on your current boat and help keep it afloat as long as possible and hope that the rescue will arrive in 5 hours
b) Do you go to your friend’s boat, ensuring your rescue, but reducing the chances of the others on the boat being rescued?

The Overcrowded Lifeboat

In 1842, a ship struck an iceberg and more than 30 survivors were crowded into a lifeboat intended to hold 7. As a storm threatened, it became obvious that the lifeboat would have to be lightened if anyone were to survive. The captain reasoned that the right thing to do in this situation was to force some individuals to go over the side and drown. Such an action, he reasoned, was not unjust to those thrown overboard, for they would have drowned anyway. If he did nothing, however, he would be responsible for the deaths of those whom he could have saved. Some people opposed the captain’s decision. They claimed that if nothing were done and everyone died as a result, no one would be responsible for these deaths. On the other hand, if the captain attempted to save some, he could do so only by killing others and their deaths would be his responsibility; this would be worse than doing nothing and letting all die. The captain rejected this reasoning. Since the only possibility for rescue required great efforts of rowing, the captain decided that the weakest would have to be sacrificed. In this situation it would be absurd, he thought, to decide by drawing lots who should be thrown overboard. As it turned out, after days of hard rowing, the survivors were rescued and the captain was tried for his action. If you had been on the jury, how would you have decided?

A Father’s Agonizing Choice

You are an inmate in a concentration camp. A sadistic guard is about to hang your son who tried to escape and wants you to pull the chair from underneath him. He says that if you don’t he will not only kill your son but some other innocent inmate as well. You don’t have any doubt that he means what he says. What should you do?

Sophie’s Choice

In the novel Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron (Vintage Books, 1976 — the 1982 movie starred Meryl Streep & Kevin Kline), a Polish woman, Sophie Zawistowska, is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. On arrival, she is “honoured” for not being a Jew by being allowed a choice: One of her children will be spared the gas chamber if she chooses which one. In an agony of indecision, as both children are being taken away, she suddenly does choose. They can take her daughter, who is younger and smaller. Sophie hopes that her older and stronger son will be better able to survive, but she loses track of him and never does learn of his fate. Did she do the right thing? Years later, haunted by the guilt of having chosen between her children, Sophie commits suicide. Should she have felt guilty?

The Trolley Problem

Suggested by Philippa Foot(1920-2010), daughter of the daughter, Esther, of president Grover Cleveland but of British birth because of her father, William Sidney Bence Bosanquet.

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?

This is a classic “right vs. good” dilemma. By acting, one person dies instead of five. So theUtilitarianhas no problem. However, by acting, that one person who is killed would not have died otherwise. That person is as innocent as the others, so by acting one is choosing to kill an innocent person. Their family is not going to be happy about your actions. In fact, any deaths will be morally due to the actions of the “mad philosopher.” Yet choosing to kill the one person, in isolation from the mitigating circumstances, clearly would be a wrongful homicide.

The Economist magazine, in its September 24th-30th 2011 issue, has an article discussing the investigations of psychologists into peoples’ reactions to dilemmas like the Trolley Problem.

One of the classic techniques used to measure a person’s willingness to behave in a utilitarian way is known as trolleyology. The subject of the study is challenged with thought experiments involving a runaway railway trolley or train carriage. All involve choices, each of which leads to people’s deaths. For example; there are five railway workmen in the path of a runaway carriage. The men will surely be killed unless the subject of the experiment, a bystander in the story, does something. The subject is told he is on a bridge over the tracks. Next to him is a big, heavy stranger. The subject is informed that his own body would be too light to stop the train, but that if he pushes the stranger onto the tracks, the stranger’s large body will stop the train and save the five lives. That, unfortunately, would kill the stranger. [p.102]

The Economist reports that only 10% of experimental subjects are willing to throw the stranger under the train. I suspect it would be less, if the subjects found themselves in a real situation, instead of a pretend experimental test. The further result of the experiment is that this 10 % of people tend to have personalities that are, “psychopathic, Machiavellian, or tended to view life as meaningless.” Charming.The Economist does then admit that the focus of Bentham and Mill was on legislation, which “inevitably involves riding roughshod over someone’s interest. Utilitarianism provides a plausible framework for deciding who should be trampled.” Since politicians constitute far less than 10% of the population, perhaps this means that now we know why, psychologically, they are the way they are.

There are, however, peculiarities to this “trolleyology.” Without the “mad philosopher” who has tied the victims to the tracks, how is the subject supposed to know that “the men will surely be killed”? In most railroad accidents with victims in the way of trains, there is a good chance that people will be killed or badly injured, but no certainty about it. The slightest uncertainty vastly reduces the value of throwing a stranger off a bridge. Also, in a real-world situation, how is the subject going to be “informed” that the stranger’s body would stop the carriage but not his own? And again, having selflessly decided to sacrifice someone else to stop the carriage, how is the Woody Allen subject going to be able to throw the “big, heavy stranger” off the bridge?

The reluctance of test subjects to sacrifice the stranger may in great measure involve resistance to credulously accepting the unrealistic premises of the dilemma. It is far more likely that someone walking across the bridge, who happens to see people on the tracks in front of the rolling carriage, will simply shout a warning at them rather than suddenly become convinced that the homicide of a stranger will save them.

The more ridiculous the situation, however, the more it reveals about the structure of dilemmas. Like the following “Fat Man and the Impending Doom,” we see an intellectual exercise, with “mad philosophers” and other improbabilities, whose sole purpose is to structure a “right vs. good” choice. Once we understand that structure, we no longer need ridiculous and even silly circumstances and can instead simply address the meaning of the moral independence of action and consequences. This doesn’t solve the dilemmas of real life, but it does mean that we don’t need to characterize Utilitarians as those who are “psychopathic, Machiavellian, or tended to view life as meaningless.”

The Tortured Child

Dostoyevsky, who has in these pages come in for comment in relation toExistentialismandatheism, imagines a classic right vs. good dilemma:

“Tell me yourself — I challenge you: let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquillity. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie!”

“No I would not,” Alyosha said softly. [Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1880, translated by Andrew H. MacAndrew, Bantam Books, 1970, p.296]

This could stand as a reductio ad absurdum of Utilitarianism; but Dostoyevsky himself cites one innocent person who is indeed sacrificed to build an “edifice” of “peace and tranquillity,” namely Jesus Christ. Jesus went to his fate willingly, unlike the little girl of the example here; but those who sent him there had something else in mind. Dostoyevsky’s thought experiment was developed into a science fiction short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” [1973], by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin, however, originally credited the device to William James, having read it in James and forgotten that it was in Dostoyevsky.

The Fat Man and the Impending Doom

Parts cut out in the 2nd edition; they seem to have gotten removed to avoid unintentionally humorous overtones.

A fat man leading a group of people out of a cave on a coast is stuck in the mouth of that cave. In a short time the high tide will be upon them, and unless he is unstuck, they will all be drowned except the fat man, whose head is out of the cave. [But, fortunately, or unfortunately, someone has with him a stick of dynamite.] There seems no way to get the fat man loose without using [that] dynamite which will inevitably kill him, but if they do not use it everyone will drown. What should they do?

Since the fat man is said to be “leading” the group, he is responsible for their predicament and reasonably should volunteer to be blown up. The dilemma becomes acuter if we substitute a pregnant woman for the fat man. She would have been urged by the others to go first out of the cave.

The Costly Underwater Tunnel

, compare: 112 men were killed during the construction of Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border (the “official” number was 98, but others had died from causes more difficult to identify — or easier to ignore — like by carbon monoxide poisoning): The first to die was a surveyor, J.G. Tierney, who drowned on December 20, 1922, and the last was his son, Patrick Tierney, who drowned on December 20, 1935 — 13 years to the day after his father. The working conditions in the summer down in the canyon involved temperatures hitting highs of 119o, with lows of no less than 95o(familiar numbers to those who have visited the cities of Needles, Blythe, or Yuma in the summer).

In 1931, about the time that Hoover Dam, a federal project (with private contractors — the whole project was “stimulus” spending conceived by Hoover to alleviate the Depression), was begun, the Empire State Building, a private project, was completed. Although the rule of thumb had been that one man would die for every story built in a skyscraper above fifteen, which would have meant 105 dead for the Empire State Building, in fact only 5 men died in the whole project. By comparison, in the earlier (1908-1913) building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct by William Mulholland (d.1935), it was also the case that only 5 men died (though when Mulholland’s St. Francis Dam, in Francisquito Canyon, collapsed in 1928, it killed over 500 people). The Golden Gate Bridge cost 14 lives (or 11 — the rule of thumb there was one life for each $1,000,000 of the project, with the bridge costing $35,000.000 — workers who fell and were caught by nets joined the “Half-Way to Hell Club”). The Alaska oil pipeline, built in the 1970’s, cost 31 lives. The Tunnel under the English Channel, built in the early 1990’s, cost 11 lives. When the Gateway Arch in St. Louis was being planned, the prediction was that 15 workers would die, but none did. Similarly, though much earlier (1927-1941), no one died during the carving of Mt. Rushmore (though workers may have died later from the effects of breathing dust from the carved rock — this used to be a serious problem for miners, before they began flushing drill points with water, and in factGutzon Borglumprovided breathing masks for the Mt. Rushmore workers, some of whom didn’t like wearing them). Even earlier, the Chrysler Building finished in 1930 at 77 stories, and briefly, the tallest building in the world (before the Empire State Building topped out), was completed without any loss of life.

Even with such progress over time, the John Hancock Building in Chicago (1970) cost 109 lives, or, indeed, about one per floor, as predicted for the Empire State Building — perhaps the infamous wind of Chicago made for more hazardous conditions. While it is usually ordinary workers who suffer in construction accidents, it isn’t always, as was the case with the Brooklyn Bridge, whose designer, John Augustus Roebling, died from the effects of a ferry accident in 1869 while surveying the site. His son, Washington Roebling, suffered such a severe case of the bends, working in a pressurized caisson in 1872, that he supervised the rest of the construction crippled in bed, first from Trenton and then from Brooklyn, sending instructions through his wife, until the bridge was completed in 1883. Overall, 27 died on the Brooklyn Bridge, 3 from the bends (though, as with Hoover Dam, this may not count them all). Workers on the caissons were paid wages of $2 a day, a lot of money in the 1870’s, but there was a turnover of 100 workers a week, out of work gangs that were less than 300 men to start with. There was also the problem that the caissons were dark, wet, claustrophobic, and nasty. It was many years before it was known what to do about the bends. Workers were still suffering from the bends when the Holland Tunnel was built in the 1920’s. The chief engineer of the tunnel, Clifford Milburn Holland, died suddenly in 1924, aged 41, suspiciously of “exhaustion.” The tunnel, opened in 1927, was then named after him.

The first tunnel under the Hudson was begun in 1874. Construction was abandoned in 1891 because of deaths (one blowout alone in 1880 killed 20 workers), restarted in 1903 byAlexander J. Cassatt of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and not completed until 1908. All such bridges and tunnels eliminate the need for ferry boats. Even in recent years, ferry sinkings and accidents are common, and they still sometimes result in the deaths of hundreds of people at a time. Even New York’s famous Staten Island Ferry (started by Cornelius Vanderbilt) is not immune. On October 15, 2003, the pilot on one of the Ferry’s ships passed out (he was diabetic), and it crashed into a pier at Staten Island. Eleven people were killed and 71 were injured, some with severed limbs. I had just ridden the Ferry that summer, and I noticed that many people stand right on the edge of the vessel as it approaches the dock. That was not a place to be in the accident. The captain of the ferry, who was not at his required station, in the pilot house, at the time of the accident, subsequently committed suicide. Now in 2010, there has been another accident with this ferry, in fact with the very same ship. On May 8, the ferry crashed into the dock on Staten Island, as in 2003. This time, however, the problem (so far) looks like a mechanical rather than a human failure. 40 people were taken to the hospital, fortunately with mostly minor injuries.

In 1954 a typhoon sank 5 ferries in the Tsugaru Strait between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, killing 1430 people. A tunnel was begun in 1964 to eliminate the ferries, although it took 25 years to complete. The idea for the tunnel under the Hudson may have been inspired by theSt. Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland, which was begun in 1872. It was only a mile under the Hudson, while the St. Gotthard would be 9.25 miles long. Nevertheless, the St. Gotthard tunnel was finished in ten years, though at a cost of 310 lives.

In New York, subsequent to the first railroad tunnel, were the tunnels to bring water into the City. From the Hillview Reservoir, just outside the Bronx, the New York City Water Tunnel No. 1 was completed in 1917 and the New York City Water Tunnel No. 2 in 1935. The rule that developed for these projects was a dead man for every mile. Water Tunnel No. 3, begun in 1970 and due to be completed soon, has not involved anything like this kind of mortality. The older tunnels have never been closed or serviced. After some time had passed, the authorities began to fear that the ageing and rusted valves, if closed, could not be easily reopened, costing the City half its water supply. This will finally be done when Tunnel No. 3 is completed.

Railroad Safety
year billions of
fatalities per billion
1890 11.8 24.2
1900 16.0 15.5
1910 32.3 10.0

Total deaths in1890-1917: 230,000.

during World War I, the railroads were run by the Federal Government

Railroad Safety
year billions of
fatalities per billion
1920 47.4 4.8
1930 26.9 2.3
1939 22.7 1.8
1943 87.9 3.2

Deaths increase during World War II with the temporary return of obsolete equipment

Railroad Safety
year billions of
fatalities per billion
1950 31.8 0.6
1970 10.8 0.07

In the table we see the rate of fatalities on American railroads over time. The 230,000 deaths between 1890 and 1917 averages out to about 8500 per year — for instance in 1897 there were 6500 deaths, 1700 of them railroad workers, but most of the rest from people being hit on the tracks (something that still happens, with four killed when a train it hit a truck, for some reason delayed at a railroad crossing, carrying wounded veterans in a Veterans Day Parade in Midland, Texas, on 15 November 2012). This toll seems excessive and appalling, and obviously much of it a function of the railroad tracks not being separated from other traffic and public access, but we might compare it withrecenttraffic fatalities for automobiles, which have been above 40,000 per year for every year since since 1962, except for 1992. Between 1966 and 1974, deaths were actually above 50,000 a year. This constant absolute rate of fatalities nevertheless reflects improvement, since the population of the country has grown greatly during the period, and the vehicle miles travelled have increased from 805,000 in 1963 to 2,880,000 in 2003. So the rate of fatalities has fallen significantly.

The industry of mining anthracite coal in Pennsylvania cost 30,000 lives between 1869 and 1950. This averages out to about 370 deaths a year or more than one death a day. Such a rate actually seems low compared to railroad deaths or modern highway deaths; and although today there are still deaths from mining, even in Pennsylvania, most modern coal mining, which used to employ thousands of men undergrand, now is handled by a couple dozen men working open pit mines in the air-conditioned cabs of giant trucks and shovels. Fatalities are rare under those circumstances.

The worst loss of life in an American railroad accident was 101 killed on 9 July 1918, at a place called “Dutchman’s Curve” in Nashville, Tennessee. Lest we chalk this up this horror to thecorporateindifference and greed of the railroads, the accident took place during World War I, when the Federal Government had taken over the railroads and was running them. The Fed did not do a good job of it — Dutchman’s Curve may be an example of that — which is one reason why no such takeover occurred during World War II, despite the record of hostility for business of theRooseveltAdministration (the President may himself have begun losing patience with the ideologues around him, including Eleanor). Nevertheless, the rate of fatalities did increase during World War II, when the level of traffic required that obsolete equipment be returned to service.

Meanwhile, railroad fatalities have become rare — although the occasional wreck can be spectacular — I was visiting Boulder, Colorado, in 1985 when two Burlington Northern trains collided head-on under a freeway overpass, which was destroyed, just outside of town. The engine crews were killed, although I don’t think this amounted to more than four persons. Part of the reduction in fatalities is the circumstance that the number of railroademployeeshas fallen from some 2 million in 1920 to only 177,000 in 2004. A train that used to require a large crew (including multiple brakemen) now may only be driven by two (with one recent fatal wreck, in theSan Fernando Valley, caused by the lonely engineer ignoring red lights because he was texting — although in that case the loss of life of passengers was significant).

Lest we think that in its time the railroads were unusually dangerous, of linemen working on the new electrical systems in the 1890’s, no less thanhalf of themwere killed on the job, generally from electrical shock. This is still a very dangerous business, although fatalities now do not seem to be common.

An underwater tunnel is being constructed despite an almost certain loss of several lives [actually, all but certain]. Presumably the expected loss is a calculated cost that society is prepared to pay for having the tunnel [“society” doesn’t make any such calculation]. At a critical moment when a fitting must be lowered into place, a workman is trapped in a section of the partly laid tunnel. If it is lowered, it will surely crush the trapped workman to death. Yet, if it is not and a time consuming rescue of the workman is attempted, the tunnel will have to be abandoned and the whole project begun anew. Two workmen have already died in the project as a result of anticipated and unavoidable conditions in the building of the tunnel. What should be done? Was it a mistake to begin the tunnel in the first place? But don’t we take such risks all the time?

We can get some clarity about this example by asking what thepolicewould do if they are informed that the work foreman has authorized the deliberate crushing of a worker. I suspect that he would immediately be arrested for murder.

With these tunnels and bridges, the moral principle involved with the deaths is a simple one: because of the projects,fewer people die later. Thus, while workers know that the projects are dangerous, and they are willing to take the risk for better wages or pride in the projects, there is an absolute calculus of saved lives once the tunnels or the bridges replace the ferries, or when a fresh water supply prevents diseases like cholera and typhoid fever, which claimed many lives in the 19th century, includingPrince Albertof England. Contrariwise, deaths on something like amovie setdo not seem balanced by any saved lives, which means thatany deaths, such as those of Vic Morrow and others on the set ofTwilight Zone, the Moviein 1982, seem intolerable and wrongful. Thus, when Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee, was killed in a freak accident filmingThe Crowin 1993, permanent changes were made in the filming of action movies. Lee was killed by a metal fragment of a shattered bullet casing, which proved deadly even though the bullet was a blank. Now, it is prohibited for guns to be fired, even with blanks, in the direction of actors. The camera angle, of course, can make itlook likethe gun is directed at its target. Or, as is becoming more common, the firing of the gun can be inserted digitally.

Other professions pose more of a moral challenge. One of the deadliest professions of all is simply commercial fishing. Dealing with heavy equipment, including chains, ropes, hooks, nets, booms, etc., on a wet heaving deck, in the dark, cold, ice, etc., is an obvious formula for injury, maiming, or death. Is this worth it just so people can eat fish? Well, the provison offoodobviously saves lives by sustaining life in the first place, and many people think that fish is a healthier source of protein than something like red meat. The calculus in those terms is not obvious, since fishing is much, much more dangerous than raising cows. In those terms, whether it is worth it may need to be left to the fishermen themselves. As it happens, small fishermen, who run the most risk, now tend to be replaced with factory ships, which are safer for the crews. But the small fishermen don’t like being put out of business, since they prefer their traditional way of life for personal and aesthetic reasons — and they would probably need to leave their local towns to find work elsewhere. They may not appreciate the argument that the danger of their way of life discounts their enjoyment of its beauty, dignity, and challenge and makes the factory ships preferable.

A similar problem occurs with logging. Lumberjacks also take pride in the beauty, majesty, and danger of their profession. But the on-the-job death rate is over 110 per 100,000 loggers per year — thirty times the national average. If the wood is used for housing, and housing saves lives by sustaining health from the elements, then we can calculate that the cost is worth it. But other materials are available for housing, and not all the wood from logging is used for that purpose. So if logging isvery dangerous, which it is, this makes the proposition even more dubious than with fishing. It may come down to the other uses of wood, which are many, and which may be more essential to modern life, which as such preserve and extend lives beyond what was the case when wood wasmore essentialfor housing and energy than it is now. The need, as with fishing, should be reflected in prices, and so also in the wages for the skilled labor involved — with the complication that the use, misuse, overuse, or underuse of National Forests becomes a political issue, and a football forrent seekersand ideological Environmentalists, that obscures what the real costs of the resource are. The loggers, like the fishermen, may need to make their own call about the value of what they do — and they also may make (glamorized) money off the “reality” shows about their work.

Part of traditional logging was floating the cut logs down rivers to sawmills. There might be so many logs in a river that they could jam, creating a log dam and the potential for all kinds of trouble and damage. To keep the logs from jamming, or to break up jams, was the job of the log rollers. It is said that for every lumberjack who died in the forest, ten log rollers died on the rivers. It is not hard to imagine the peril of their jobs, walking around on logs that roll under their feet, where falling between the logs could quickly mean being crushed by them. Fortunately, most logs are now trucked out of forests rather than floated down rivers. Log rolling is reduced to a fun and humorous event at fairs or woodcraft competitions. This is progress. Of course, now the Federal Government wants every logging road treated with all the same permit requirements and regulations as Interstate highways. The rivers may come back into use.

Jean Valjean’s Conscience

Comment: see the 1998 movie,Les Miserables, with Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman, and Geoffrey Rush.

In Victor Hugo’sLes Miserables, the hero, Jean Valjean, is an ex-convict, living illegally under an assumed name and wanted for a robbery he committed many years ago. [Actually, no — he is only wanted for breaking parole.] Although he will be returned to the galleys — probably [in fact, actually] for life — if he is caught, he is a good man who does not deserve to be punished. He has established himself in a town, becoming mayor and a public benefactor. One day, Jean learns that another man, a vagabond, has been arrested for a minor crime and identified as Jean Valjean. Jean is first tempted to remain quiet, reasoning to himself that since he had nothing to do with the false identification of this hapless vagabond, he has no obligation to save him. Perhaps this man’s false identification, Jean reflects, is “an act of Providence meant to save me.” Upon reflection, however, Jean judges such reasoning “monstrous and hypocritical.” He now feels certain that it is his duty to reveal his identity, regardless of the disastrous personal consequences. His resolve is disturbed, however, as he reflects on the irreparable harm his return to the galleys will mean to so many people who depend upon him for their livelihood — especially troubling in the case of a helpless woman and her small child to whom he feels a special obligation. He now reproaches himself for being too selfish, for thinking only of his own conscience and not of others. The right thing to do, he now claims to himself, is to remain quiet, to continue making money and using it to help others. The vagabond, he comforts himself, is not a worthy person, anyway. Still unconvinced and tormented by the need to decide, Jean goes to the trial and confesses. Did he do the right thing?

A Callous Passerby

Roger Smith, a quite competent swimmer, is out for a leisurely stroll. During the course of his walk he passes by a deserted pier from which a teenage boy who apparently cannot swim has fallen into the water. The boy is screaming for help. Smith recognizes that there is absolutely no danger to himself if he jumps in to save the boy; he could easily succeed if he tried. Nevertheless, he chooses to ignore the boy’s cries. The water is cold and he is afraid of catching a cold — he doesn’t want to get his good clothes wet either. “Why should I inconvenience myself for this kid,” Smith says to himself, and passes on. Does Smith have a moral obligation to save the boy? If so, should he have a legal obligation [“Good Samaritan” laws] as well?

The Last Episode ofSeinfeld

The cast ofSeinfeld, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer, have a layover in a small New England town. They witness a robbery in broad daylight. The robber has his hand in his pocket, and the victim shouts that the man has a gun. As soon as the robber runs away, a policeman appears on the scene; but instead of pursuing the robber, he arrests Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer for having violated the new “Good Samaritan” law of the town. Since the four of them spent the time of the robbery making fun of the victim, who was fat, their role in the matter doesn’t look good, and at their trial everyone who has ever felt wronged by them in the course of the television series testifies against them. They are convicted. Is this just? What were they supposed to do during the robbery? Should they have rushed the robber, just in case he didn’t really have a gun?

A Poisonous Cup of Coffee

With Jane and Debbie added for the sake ofgenderequality.

Tom[/Jane], hating his[/her] wife[/husband] and wanting her[/him] dead, puts poison in her[/his] coffee, thereby killing her[/him]. Joe[/Debbie] also hates his[/her] wife[/husband] and would like her[/him] dead. One day, Joe’s[/Debbie’s] wife[/husband] accidentally puts poison in her[/his] coffee, thinking it’s cream. Joe[/Debbie] has the antidote, but he[/she] does not give it to her[/him]. Knowing that he[/she] is the only one who can save her[/him], he[/she] lets her[/him] die. Is Joe’s[/Debbie’s] failure to act as bad as Tom’s[/Jane’s] action?

The Torture of the Mad Bomber

The use of torture in Clint Eastwood’s movie,Dirty Harry(1971), somewhat comically inSin City(2005), and then in extended, serious, and graffic fashion, conducted by Denzel Washington, inMan on Fire(2004). In 2009, there is also Liam Neeson, Qui-gon Jinn ofStar Wars, who uses torture to rescue his kidnapped daughter inTaken– he even shoots the “innocent wife” of his former French spy friend to get information from him. Definitely a different kind of Jedi. After 9/11/01, we have the case of terrorist suspects who may know of planned operations that could cost the lives of thousands. The otherwise four-square civil libertarian and Harvard Law ProfessorAlan Dershowitzactually suggested legalized torture to deal with such people. This early complacency about torture seems to have been followed mostly by objections that some kind of torturewasused by U.S. forces in Iraq and by U.S. allies (Egypt, Pakistan, etc.). Indeed, there is a saying, that if you want information from someone, send them to Jordan, if you want them hurt, send them to Syria, and if you want them killed, send them to Egypt.

A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree? If you do, would it also be morally justifiable to torture the mad bomber’s innocent wife if that is the only way to make him talk? Why?

In the judicial system of ImperialChina, torture was technically illegal but tolerated because no one could be convicted without a confession. Torture could then be used with these provisions: (1) Questioning could only be done in open court. Since torture would then be administered in public, the public should agree, from the evidence, that the suspect is probably guilty. If it appeared that an innocent person was being tortured, a riot might result. The Judge, who was also the Magistrate of his administrative District, would be held responsible for the civil disturbance. (2) Punishment would be mitigated in proportion to any suffering inflicted by torture. And, most importantly, (3) if it turned out that an innocent person was convicted, the punishment he suffered could be imposed on the Judge. This was called , “reversed judgment.” I think that this is a fine legal principle — where with us misbehavior by judges, prosecutors, or police is generally not liable to criminal sanction. A person not even under oath lying to a federal agent is guilty of a crime, but prosecutors can lie in court and the police can lie to suspects (in the United States but not in Britain) with impunity. The Chinese legal system is discussed and illustrated by the Dutch diplomat and scholar Robert van Gulik in hisJudge Deebooks.

The Principle of Psychiatric Confidentiality

Tthe 1997 movie,Devil’s Advocate, and the 1993 movie,The Firm, on confidentiality between lawyers and clients.

You are a psychiatrist and your patient has just confided to you that he intends to kill a woman. You’re inclined to dismiss the threat as idle, but you aren’t sure. Should you report the threat to the police and the woman or should you remain silent as the principle of confidentiality between psychiatrist and patient demands? Should there be a law that compels you to report such threats?

The Partiality of Friendship

Jim has the responsibility of filling a position in his firm. His friend Paul has applied and is qualified, but someone else seems even more qualified. Jim wants to give the job to Paul, but he feels guilty, believing that he ought to be impartial. That’s the essence of morality, he initially tells himself. This belief is, however, rejected, as Jim resolves that friendship has a moral importance that permits, and perhaps even requires, partiality in some circumstances. So he gives the job to Paul. Was he right?

The Value of a Promise

Compare with the role of David Cash in the murder of Sherrice Iverson by Jeremy Strohmeyer. Under Nevada law, Cash was not charged simply for concealing knowledge of Strohmeyer’s crime. To be anaccessory after the fact, he would have needed to havedonesomething (a wrong of commission) to otherwise help Strohmeyer. Later, when he was admitted to the University of California, there was protest over his moral suitability.

A friend confides to you that he has committed a particular crime and you promise never to tell. Discovering that an innocent person has been accused of the crime, you plead with your friend to give himself up. He refuses and reminds you of your promise. What should you do? In general, under what conditions should promises be broken?

In October 1990, Jeffrey Cain was killed in a road rage shooting in Anchorage, Alaska. When George Kerr informed on the friends who had done the shooting, he said, “I usually wouldn’t rat out my friends, but this is just so severe I got to do it.” “Just so severe” is the issue. After their conviction, the friends arranged from prison, in a conspiracy including the pregnant sister of one defendant, to have a bomb sent to Kerr’s house. Kerr wasn’t home, and the bomb killed his father. All the conspirators, including the sister, were convicted of the murder. This does not encourage one to believe in the goodness of human nature.

The Perjured President

Note that the issue here, although the politics is somewhat dated, is over the use of sexual harrassment laws. The support of the Paula Jones lawsuit by Catherine MacKinnon — “When Paul Jones suedBill Clinton, male dominance quaked” — seemed merely to result in the marginalization of MacKinnon from elite opinion — her earlier Stalinism and anhedonic politicalmoralismhad not been sufficient. Clinton continues to be treated as a serious political influence, appearing extensively in television promotions for CaliforniaProposition 87in the 2006 election. That the proposition failed should cause some enthusiasts to reevaluate Clinton’s influence.

A long time Governor of a Southern State is elected President of the United States on a platform that includes strong support for laws against sexual harassment. After he is in office, it comes out that he may have used State Troopers, on duty to protect him as Governor, to pick up women for him. One of the women named in the national press stories as having been brought to the Governor for sex felt defamed because she had actually rebuffed his crude advances, even though he had said that he knew her boss — she was a State employee. She decides to clear her name by suing the now President for sexual harassment. The Supreme Court allows the suit to proceed against the sitting President. Because the sexual harassment laws have been recently expanded, with the President’s agreement, to allow testimony about the history of sexual conduct of the accused harasser, the President is questioned under oath about rumors of an affair with a young White House intern. He strongly denies that any sexual relationship had ever taken place, and professes not to remember if he was even ever alone with the intern. Later, incontrovertible evidence is introduced — the President’s own semen on the intern’s dress — that establishes the existence of the rumored sexual relationship. The President then finally admits only to an ambiguous “improper relationship.” So the dilemma is: Is it hypocritical of the President and his supporters to continued to support the sexual harassment and perjury laws if they do not want him to be subject to the ordinary penalties for breaking them? Or, are the political purposes of the President’s supporters in keeping him in office more important than this?