Sunday, February 27, 2011

Here comes the trolley

Guest blogger Malke recently experienced a new low in higher education.

Take it away, Malke!

On the Right Track?

A Guest Post by Malke

This week, I began teaching, for the second time, a course in medical ethics to nursing students at one of the country's colleges.

Like last year, I began with a famous problem in ethics known as "The Trolley Problem" - except that I call it "The Train Problem," because I don’t know how to say trolley in Hebrew… :-)

Basically, it goes like this: There’s a train (or trolley) speeding down the tracks, and tied to the tracks are 5 innocent people.

You don’t have time to stop the train or to untie the people. But you can flip a switch that will divert the train to another track, where there’s only one person tied. What do you do?

The point is to get the students discussing the problem and the moral differences between their answers.

The discussion was going rather well… until one student raised her hand.

The following represents the ensuing dialogue between me and said student - whom, I will remind you, is IN COLLEGE:

Student: You don’t have to do anything, because the conductor will know how to stop the train in time.

Me: No, he won’t.

Student: No, no, he will. They learn how to do that.

Me: Okay, there’s no conductor in the train.

Student: How can you drive a train without a conductor?


Thanks, Malke!

Your student’s parents must be so proud…



  1. Apparently your friend has her own share of surprising students! Maybe the world is fairer than I thought.

  2. I won't switch because you are actively causing someone to die because of you but if you do not pull the switch no one is dying because of your actions. As Chazal say Shaiv Al Ta'ashey Adif

  3. Ilanadavita-"Surprising" is a very charitable way of putting it, I had actually thought of a different adjective that begins with "s"

    YW-That is one approach but you are definitely in the minority. Only two students felt as you did, the majority said to pull the switch because you are essentially saving the lives of five people at the expense of one. But what is interesting is that there is a variation to the problem, where you can stop the train by pushing something very heavy in front of it, and there happens to be a very fat person nearby, do you push him onto the tracks? No one says to do it, even though it's the same 5 versus 1.

  4. She worked her way out of the no ideal solution problem -- just like Captain Kirk!

  5. Malka, I'm certain there is a halachic answer for this. There were far worse situations that people asked about during the Holocaust. For example, one father had the opportunity to save his son if he would get someone else to take his place. The rabbi didn't want to answer, so he realized that he wasn't allowed to do so. We see from navi that in order to save a city it is allowed to surrender a person who will be killed if he asked for by name, though the halacha is different if they just ask for people and not specific individuals.

  6. Ariella-Yes, it definitely connects to differnet halachic situations, including the whole issue of Gilad Shalit. My husband once repeated a fascinating shiur he had heard on the topic; I am sorry I didnt write it down at the time. I do sometimes bring the halachic perspective into my classes, although since about half the class consists of Israeli-Arabs, it isnt relevant to all of them.


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