If you are not able to choose,
it is not your choice to make,
not your responsibility to bear.
In ethical philosophy, perhaps the most famous dilemma is that of ‘Trolleyology’ – the ‘Trolley Problem’. Essentially, it is a moral thought experiment that paints the following scenario… A runaway trolley is rushing down a railway track, ahead of which are five people, who will not be able to move aside in time. You are some distance away, next to a lever, the pulling of which will switch the trolley to a side track. However, that track has one person on it, who also cannot run in time. If you do not pull the lever, five will die. If you do, one will die. What should you do?
Not knowing the individuals’ moral integrity and their existential significance, most who are ‘logical’ will in theory agree to pull the lever, as this will result in the least harmed, with the most helped. However, in practice, knowing that saving five also decides the death of one, this is more challenging. How would the average person respond? Will this person just freeze up in confusion? Will there be claiming no responsibility by letting things be? Yet, with seemingly only oneself in control of the ‘fate’ of six people, choosing to ‘not choose’ is also choosing.
As Sartre put it on the existential anguish and burden of choice, ‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does’ [and does not]. While instinctively knowing even the lives of strangers are precious and ought to be saved, this same instinct creates hesitation to take even just one precious life. This hesitation is enough to stir debate despite it just being a thought experiment, and to paralyse clear action should it occur in real life.
How about switching the humans on the tracks to animals? Unless with a heartless penchant for suffering, the dilemma should remain. Even if we reduce the size of the animals involved to be ever smaller, till they are as small as unseen insects, the preciousness of their lives remain, as perceived by putting ourselves in the positions of these sentient beings. Interestingly, this is innate Bodhicitta from Buddha-nature at work, that cannot even bear the suffering of a single sentient being, that wants all to be well and happy.
So… To pull or not to pull? If both seem somewhat equally difficult, it is good news. Because again, it is Bodhicitta at work, that simply does not wish anyone to be harmed, much more killed – even if for saving many others. Deep down, we all wish to save all beings. Here is a specifically Buddhist view and solution for the Trolley Problem… To pull or not to pull is a false dichotomy, as there is a third alternative for resolution – by swift and sincere mindfulness of Buddha (念佛), to connect to him, for requesting a timely miracle or inspired advice, for the sake of saving all.
If you are able to choose,
it is your choice to make,
your responsibility to bear.
The Compassionate Captain’s Skilful Means
Should We Kill Many Others To Protect Ourselves?