National Security Strategy

Moral Dilemmas

Non-scientific surveys of student responses to a series of moral dilemmas.

The Moral Dilemmas

You are driving a minivan with 5 other men in it. The men are complete strangers to you. You turn around a sharp curve and find yourself on a narrow bridge over a gaping chasm. A woman with her back toward you is pushing a stroller with a baby in it. She cannot get out of the way and you cannot stop in time to save her. You can swerve off the bridge, killing everyone in the minivan. You only have two choices: swerve and kill everyone in the minivan or continue on the bridge and kill the woman with the baby. Assume that in either case there are no legal consequences for you (i.e. it is a purely moral choice). Answer the following four questions:
  1. Do you swerve and kill yourself along with the other men, or do you keep going and kill the woman with the baby?
  2. Suppose you could get out of the car before it flies off the bridge. Do you swerve killing the other men but saving yourself, or do you keep going killing the woman and the baby?
  3. Suppose that the other men are suspected murderers whom you are transporting to the courthouse for a trial. Do you swerve, killing them but saving yourself, or do you keep going, killing the woman and the baby?
  4. Suppose that the other men are convicted murderers whom you are transporting to prison for lifetime sentences without parole. Do you swerve, killing them but saving yourself, or do you keep going, killing the woman and the baby?

The Results

Students were asked to record their choices to each of the four questions. The answers were anonymous and did not require explanation for their choices. Here's what we got (the numbers sometimes do not add up to the total number of students because some refuse to answer):

 Q1Q2 Q3Q4
Students (Term)SwerveContinueSwerveContinue SwerveContinueSwerveContinue
82 (Winter 2004) 21% (17)79% (65)28% (22)73% (58) 65% (52)35% (28)94% (75)6% (5)
57 (Winter 2004) 28% (16)72% (41)49% (28)51% (29) 79% (45)21% (12)96% (55)4% (2)


By and large, there are no surprises in the answers. People seem perfectly capable of making the tough choices without much reference to post-modern ideas of relativistic morality. In general, when the men are complete strangers, the choice seems to boil down to hurting the fewest number of people, and so the woman and the baby die to save the lives of five (or six) others. As one would expect, slightly fewer people would continue if they could save themselves (Q2) compared to the case where they could not (Q1). However, an overwhelming majority still chooses to continue. On the other hand, over 20% claim that they would commit suicide rather than kill the woman and the baby... I wish I could believe that.

Things become quite a bit clearer when there is some information about the other men in the minivan. Despite the strong presumption of innocence in our legal system, the mere suspicion that they might be murderers is sufficient to doom them: significant majorities would prefer to save the woman and the baby. Furthermore, despite frequent wrangling about the morality of the death penalty and claims about cases of people wrongly convicted of murder, a conviction is nearly certain to doom these men.

I would say that there is a strong desire to save as many lives as possible but that it is not universal: we evaluate the worth of the people involved according to generally accepted societal criteria. Simply put, some are worth saving and others are not, and we are quite capable of deciding who is which.