Questioning Morals

Every day, we unlock a different part of a mystery, finding a part of ourselves in this ever changing world. Opinions, beliefs, and ideals remain malleable to the forces of change. But, at our core lies a set of principles, a moral code that identifies the good and bad in each situation. A code that we believe to be firm no matter the problem.

To break the bubble, let’s analyze a common dilemma. In a situation involving multiple lives at risk, would you save the few or the many? Basic logic and reasoning would prompt people to save the many over the few. People choose this despite knowing that the value of a life has been a grey area for centuries. One can argue that a working adult’s life is more valuable than that of a baby since the adult contributes to society. On the other hand, younger people typically have a longer life span and have unchecked potential to contribute. Some believe that an unborn child has the right to live even if it’s at the carrier’s expense. 

Let’s explore the well-known trolley problem to understand the dilemma. A trolley approaches a junction, which splits into two tracks. On one track, five people are tied down, while on the other, a single person is tied up. You notice the lever next to you and therefore have to choose which way the unstoppable trolley goes. Consider this an ideal situation where you face no repercussions and all the tied down people are complete strangers. Now, we approach a slight modification of the problem. A trolley advances on a single track with five people tied down. You stand on a bridge under which the route passes. Next to you, a fat man also watches the events unfolding with his back turned to you. If you wish to save the five people on the track, you would need something heavy to stop the trolley; an opportunity presents itself in the form of the fat man. Would you push him to save the others? One final variation to help explain the concept. You are a transplant surgeon, and you come across five patients who require different organ transplants immediately, or they will succumb to their fatal wounds. The only way to save them is by transplanting the organs from an unsuspecting healthy person who came for a routine check-up, hence taking his life to save the other five. The question remains the same; the singular life or the multiple ones?

All three situations have the same result. You choose to save lives at the expense of other lives. The difference comes in the context of each case. In the first scenario, you believe you have no choice but to choose, and hence most choose to save multiple lives. In the other two scenarios, you realize you don’t have as important a role. You feel more guilty in taking even the singular life as you have the choice not to. Adding to that guilt is the problem wherein you are more directly involved in the deaths (pushing or unconsented surgery). Context changes the situation in your mind. You stop thinking about the precious moral you held firm. Guilt overrides the desire to save lives. If we bring in personal factors, scenarios get more muddled. One may choose to save a loved one at the expense of strangers. In a realistic situation, panic will block multiple desires to save lives. The end should justify the means. A life is immeasurable (it’s a contradiction to choose as well), so more lives should be the obvious choice. And yet, a small change in the technique or execution sends any previous thoughts out the window.

Morals are a tricky expanse. The trolley problem is just one example of how little we understand about ourselves. It’s easy to comprehend how you would react in an ideal situation. The real challenge begins when you bring in complications, leading to questions and unthinkable answers. A person with solid morals may not always be the one who answers the call to action in a particular situation. But, understanding your moral code early on helps you analyse improbable as well as realistic situations in a clearer light. Unraveling your moral code is no easy feat; we may never be able to untie every knot. Take the first step, start questioning yourself.

Jacob Thomas

Always, forever lost

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