Thursday, May 21, 2009

A few weeks ago, I was in the car with my father listening to public radio. It's just the default radio station in my family. Anyway, it was this program called "Radio Lab" or something like that. They were examining a human being's innate sense of morality. What we instinctively feel towards moral dilemmas. In order to illustrate how the instinct overrides logical reasoning, they put forth what I call the Men on a Rail Problem.
Scenario 1: You are watching five men work on a railroad track that diverges into a y-shape. Four are working on one section, the other is working on another section. Next to you is a switch. A train is approaching at high speed and will hit the four men working on the section it is aimed at. However, you can pull the switch, diverting the train to the other section and only hitting one man.
Do you pull the lever?
Scenario 2: Again, you are watching men working on a railroad track. This time, you are overhead on a bridge a good distance above them. Next to you is a large man. The train is again approaching. If you do nothing, the train will kill all the men on the track. If you push the large man over the edge, it will stop the train and save the workers, only killing the man you pushed.
Do you push the man?
Ok, so if you answered yes to Scenario 1 and no to Scenario 2, congratulations, you are like most people. It just feels wrong to push a man, yet okay to pull a lever. Logically, both are the same, ending in the death of one man versus many, but one feels okay, one feels very wrong. Seemingly proving instinct overrides logic.
I propose that both scenarios are invalid. There is no such thing as a no-win situation (as any answer is in these scenarios). I propose that no matter what you do, no one will die. If these men are able enough to work on the tracks, they are able enough to realize a train is coming and that they should move. Thus averting catastrophe. This experiment is INVALID. In my humble opinion.
Reminds me of the Kobayashi Maru scenario in Star Trek. A seemingly no-win situation turned into a win-win situation by a cheat. But, it wasn't really a cheat since the entire scenario was a cheat.
Dearie me, I am a nerd. Please forgive my outburst of geek-dom. To be fair, I had seen the new Star Trek movie less than a day before I heard this broadcast.
Quoting one of my favorite web-comicers: Rock on and geek out.

This train will kill everyone you love if you don't flip that switch!

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