Switching Tracks

So, there’s this thought experiment that drives me crazy.

There’s a train plummeting towards certain doom. Luckily, there’s a track switch you can throw to save the seemingly ill-fated passengers. But just as you’re thinking about doing that, you realize – there is a sole person tied-up, unable to move, on the track you’d be switching the train to.

Saving the lives of dozens on the train means taking the life of the one on the tracks.

The purpose of this thought experiment, I suppose, is to make you think about that age-old question: do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Is taking one life justified if it means saving more?

Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but I can never get that far in this thought experiment. When challenged with this question all I can think is:

Seriously, have you ever thrown a railroad switch?

I mean, it is hard, man.

To be fair, my experience with trains comes mostly from my childhood – when I spent a great deal of time on a historic 1880s farm – complete with horse-drawn train – thanks to my father’s enthusiasm for trains, history, and building.

I spent a lot of time with trains.

And I’ve switched a lot of track in my day.

Granted, I imagine I’d be somewhat better at it now than as a small child, but let’s be honest – switching tracks is hard work. It takes significant brute force to muscle through the intense, metal-on-rusty-metal action. The gears are always a little worn, a little jammed, a little worse for wear.

There’s no magic switch that just – boom – switches tracks.

You know, the whole drama that led to Casey Jones‘ death was essentially a track-switching problem. It’s a non-trivial issue.

And perhaps philosophy just isn’t a field to be burdened by practicalities. Perhaps the larger thought experiment is more important than the actual details of the problem.

And yet, for a field that struggles to reflect views beyond those of white men, this thought experiment strikes me as indicative of the problem –

The whole question assumes that I have a position of power.

What would I do if I saw a doomed train full of people and a safe track with one lone soul?

Hell, man, it hardly matters – if I can’t muscle the rail switch, I can’t do anything at all.


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