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Once upon a time, there was this pilot. His plane was about to crash and he had to choose whether to steer his plane to a less or a more inhabited area. You'd think his choice would be simple, right? But before you give your response, consider the following situation that is practically the same, only a bit different.

A judge faces rioters. The crowd demands that the culprit be found guilty for a certain crime or else they will take revenge on a particular section of the community. Since the real culprit is unknown, the judge realizes that he can prevent bloodshed only by framing some innocent bystander and having him executed to save the lives of many. But should he do it? Can he, like the pilot from the scenario above, justify killing an innocent person by preventing an even bigger atrocity?

Now, please, before you respond, suppose you are walking over a bridge, minding your own business, "Doo do doo do doo do do doo . . ." when you see a trolley hurtling toward five men working on the track. There is a fat man next to you and you realize that if you push the fat man, with your own hands, over the bridge and onto the trolley track, you will save the five innocent people. [End Page 230]

As you approach the fat man, you hesitate, just as the bystander and the judge would have. What should you do? You don't know. You are not sure. This means that you are having a moral issue.

Let's suppose you do the following: You scratch. You sweat. You begin to feel how hard it is to make moral choices. And time acquires this weird dimension. It starts to kind of stretch and stretch and stretch . . . —the universe is giving you a chance to examine your options.

These thoughts are rushing feverishly through your mind: What if I try to push him but cannot? He is fat and I am just a squirt. If I bounce back and don't manage to push him off, the five men will be killed and one fat man will be angry with me for trying to kill him.

Would he agree, you are thinking, if you tell him, "I did not really mean to kill you, I was just trying to save the five men"?

How convincing would that be?

Does he share your moral values?

Would he buy it?

And then even more thoughts flood into your already very crowded head, all aimed at showing you why you should not murder this one person even if you were to save the five wretches about to be killed.

You have a stomachache. You feel dizzy. You bet that an fMRI would show a lot of activity in your "emotional" brain zone and you'd be totally right. It's like a brain itch, you want to say.

And you begin to believe that the fat man has five kids. The innocent kids are at a funeral crying their eyes out—you imagine all this so that you can justify not pushing him off the bridge.

No one to love them, no one to rear them, no one to hug them. Your feet are as heavy as lead. Your brain is engulfed in fog. When there is only one tiny step between you and the fat man's destiny, out of nowhere a philosopher appears like an angel to save you, or so you hope. The philosopher, a nice-looking woman with round glasses, presents you with the following quandary:

Suppose you are a brilliant transplant surgeon who has five patients on their deathbeds. Each needs a different organ: a heart, a liver, a kidney, and so on. As fortune would have it, no organs are available at the moment to perform any of the transplants. Just around that time, you meet a young traveler who complains to you about a cough he has. In the process of checking him over, you discover that his organs are compatible with all five of your patients and, what's more, you realize that the young man has no relations. No one would notice if he went missing. [End Page 231]

What? You are dumbfounded by this bloodthirsty scenario that seems to egg you on to say yes, I would kill the one to save the many. And yet you feel lucky that this philosopher has landed, like some kind of bird, perhaps an owl, on your shoulder just when you needed her, for you hope she is there to help you make sense of these scenarios, not to make your fix even tighter.

You are confused by the lack of options. Why doesn't the surgeon ask the young traveler what he would want? When you open your mouth to ask what the philosopher would do were she in your place, facing such an incredible situation, she does an even more incredible thing and melts into thin air, giving you the finger, saying, "I am not a priest," and leaves you all alone. You are again on your own with that choice of killing one fat man who may or may not have five kids, or killing five men working on the railroad who may or may not be hardened criminals.

You are terrified of moral choices. You beg, you plead: I am not Abraham, could I please have a math problem? I was always bad at math but this, this is so beyond awful. The stress is killing me. Could this stop?

Oh, how you wish John Yoo would rewrite the scenarios so that they would physically torture you (waterboard you and all that) instead—for the greater good, of course.


You are just about to say that you cannot possibly make a rational choice in such a situation (other than calling for John Yoo), but you are hijacked once again by yet another thought experiment.

Philosophers are having their way with you, aren't they?!

This time, you are transported into the future to see the consequences of your actions.

In one future, you decided, after all, to push the fat guy and save the five, since you thought that saving five must be better than ending one life. You even wanted to enlist the fat man to your way of thinking, believing that he would have jumped of his own free will if he only saw the problem with his own eyes.

You knew he would.

But one of those five workers you saved by killing one fat man, after the transformative experience they had by nearly being killed, becomes the leader of a workers' party, and the other four become his lieutenants. The party stages a coup. It comes to power and the first thing they do is order that your kind must die. They take your mother and father [End Page 232] and your children away. When you protest and point out that you saved their leader, they make a special dispensation for you and let you watch while they take the rest of your family to a death camp, sparing your life and letting you go free. The same leader starts a war with another country, then another, and another. The war engulfs many nations. Millions of people are dying everywhere. You look at yourself and see yourself as evil incarnate. You pushed one to save five who went on to end the lives of millions. And you are responsible for all that. All that! You wish you had jumped from the bridge onto the tracks yourself. It would have been a much easier choice; you realize now that it is too late.


Just as you think you have seen the solution to the moral quandary and want to turn your hand against yourself, a competing future begins to unfold, newsflash-style. This one features the fat man whom you could not push off the bridge after all. Instead, in this future, the two of you bond around the event and become fast friends, go fishing every day. You get fat too and, over time, in his presence, you discover that the fat man is the love of your life. Now you think that one life can be so much more precious than five. It leads to all this bliss.

Then, as suddenly as that vision came, it vanishes, leaving you longing for a nice, simple future and the nice, simple choices that make simple people simple.

You think, I am so exhausted. I am so beyond repair. I need to rest. Sleep, sleep, sleep. But then . . .

You are back on the bridge facing the fat man's rear end and the terrible decision. All you can see is that his shirt doesn't come all the way down to his trousers and that his trousers are lower than decency allows. What is he—a plumber?

In this version of reality, this insignificant detail occupies your mind with a unique power, displacing all other quandaries. You stand there transfixed. You cannot avert your eyes from it. It is so disgusting! All the while the tram is speeding toward a horrible accident. You don't give a fuck about that or about the universe in general.

All you can think now is how nauseating the sight you see is.

You think further how chafing moral experiments are.

You ask very loudly in an exasperated voice, can we have a moral experiment that is, for a change, funny, perhaps?

One in which you can actually act? [End Page 233]

How about that kind?

And the kind in which we recognize that the future is unknown?


It's time for conclusions and, instead of making a decision, you conclude that you don't want to participate in this game.

You realize that these scenarios taught you nothing except this one thing: how horrible it is to have a conscience!

Because, you see, it can be manipulated so—easily!

It seems to you even worse to be endowed with reason than with conscience, doesn't it?

It, too, can be manipulated even more easily.

Especially with words.

But wait, says a penguin.

You say, now what?

You thought it was all over, but now a penguin has appeared out of nowhere and is there talking to you, saying things that the philosopher could not. The penguin talks in a sort of charming voice you'd expect from a man with a pipe, pronouncing all his S's as "shs" and extending the A's, as if he is from Scotland, all just for fun. And he is clad all in tweed—a tweedy bird, if you will.

"Conshider thish," he begins, "you aaare in a shelf-driving caaar. Shaaay, you aaare on a perilous road, high up in the mountaaainsh. Cliffsh on aaall shidesh. You aaare tootling aaaround in aaawe and out of nowhere, shuddenly, there is this pedeshtriaaan. The caaar now haaash to think: if I go on, I will kill the pedeshtriaaan; if I shwerve to avoid the pedeshtriaaan, I will run down the cliff and kill you."

"Frozen yet?" the penguin asks, looking at you with compassion. He knows that you have had it with moral conundrums.

But, no, the penguin has not understood you. You are not frozen. You are merely petrified with anger. Your face is getting redder and redder and then you EXPLODE!

All these questions come pouring out of you: "Who put the pedestrian there? Does the car have a horn? How the fuck can the car know if the pedestrian is going to be killed or not? Perhaps this pedestrian will develop wings and fly away? Does the pedestrian have any responsibility for his actions?"

The penguin again looks at you with compassion. He is so sorry that the human world is so, so complex for you. He would like to trade places [End Page 234] but he can't. He waits a minute, exhales, then shrugs his shoulders and says, "It'sh about liability, you moron.

"The company that deshignsh the shoftwaaare that maaakesh the shelf-driving caaar that haaash to choosh between killing you or the pedestriaaan, shaaaid company is liable for the choicesh the caaar maaakesh, unlike you, you shtupid idiot, you can haaave all the excushesh in the world. I meant thish, I waaanted thaaat. They told me to. Traaa-laa-laaa."

"Is this where the story finally ends?" you ask the penguin, pleading, resigned to your role of being merely a pawn in these moral-turned-legal conundrums. You just want them to pass.

The penguin says, "For the time being, it'sh aaall." "But," he says, "I'll be back to torment you yet aaagain! Conshcience is an awful thing to haaave." [End Page 235]

Petar Ramadanovic
University of New Hampshire

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