Pearls, Rats, and Trolleys

For those of us who still read print newspapers, there is an interesting comic strip called Pearls before Swine that has been around since the early 2000s created by one Stephan Pastis. It is satire in the tradition of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, Scott Adams’ Dilbert, and others. It is drawn simply, not too many degrees above stick figures. It features three primary anthropomorphic animal characters, who have the common name for their species. There’s Pig, who is good-natured, naïve, and rather dim-witted; Goat, intelligent and decent; and Rat, who is cynical, misanthropic, and, well, a rat. Pastis often makes fun of himself, especially for his outrageous puns. Other characters appear from time to time to fit the narrative or satirical target.

A recent strip (January 22, 2020) featured the well-known “trolley problem” the ethical dilemma whereby a runaway trolley or train is hurdling toward a “Y” connection controlled by a switch. On one direction five persons are tied to the track who will be killed unless the switch is flipped to divert the train to the other direction. The protagonist is given the power to flip that switch, but if he does the trolley will kill one person who is on the other track. What is the right thing for him to do?

In the strip, Goat posits the scenario to Rat. Rat says he needs more information, mainly whether he’s the one who tied the person to the track. Appalled, which he often is by Rat’s attitudes, Goat decides Rat was the wrong person to ask.

See the strip here

Rat’s question that he needs more information, however, piques interest in the problem. There are numerous variation of the situation. One often mentioned is whether it is right to push a fat man (off a bridge or next to the track) in front of the trolley to stop it, saving the five at the price of killing the fat man.

The utilitarian answer to the first scenario is that it is better to throw the switch and lose one life rather than lose five. But is that answer compatible with a rational sense of morality in general, and the law?

The common law, which is generally based on Judeo-Christian morality and, really, on common sense, does not impose a duty to act to prevent an injury unless one has set in motion the event that would cause the injury unless stopped, or there is a special relationship (child, ward, spouse, etc.) with the potential victim. Thus, in the first scenario, there is no duty the protagonist to throw the switch. Actually, to throw the switch would inject one into the causal chain, and probably make it murder.

The rub comes if the protagonist has a special relationship with one of more of the five on the track the trolley will hit if not switched to hit the single person on the other track. What if the protagonist has a special relationship (e.g., children) with the persons on both tracks?

Would the answer would still be the same, if the protagonist did not cause the dilemma to begin with? The final episode of the third season in the British-French crime drama The Tunnel — Vengeance has a scenario similar to the latter. You’ll have to watch it to find out what happened.

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