National Security Strategy
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:
- Do you swerve and kill yourself along with the other men, or do you keep going and kill the woman with
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
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):
|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
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.