The Value of an Abstract Life

David Thomas | Posted on 05/06/10

A couple of times in the latest Big Questions Essay Series, the "trolley problem" appears.  First proposed by British philosopher Phillipa Foot, the thought experiment states that there is a runaway trolley car.  If you do nothing, all five people trapped in the path of the car will die.  If you reroute the trolley to a track with one person trapped on it, only that person will die.  Most people pick option two.  No end of debate and insight comes from this result, but a much larger issue usually gets ignored.

The assumption inherent in the construction of the question and in most discourse surrounding it is that all human life is of equal value.  That's why it seems natural to assume that five lives are more valuable than one.  And it's comforting to know that that's where most people's minds go when evaluating the dilemma.  However, let me rephrase the question:

There is a runaway trolley car.  Trapped in its path are Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Jack the Ripper, and Pol Pot.  Trapped on the alternate track is Mother Teresa.  What do you do?

Suddenly the results we expect and even demand are that most people choose to let the five die.  We are horrified to think that all human life is of equal value under those circumstances.

Still, it's comforting to know that human life in the abstract is valuable, and that if a stranger knows nothing about you, they'll assume you're worth saving.  Just hope that there are four other strangers with you when they decide.

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