Thursday, 24 March 2011

My Exciting Life

The other day, while ironing, I watched the first in a series of lectures from Harvard by someone called Michael Sandel. The title of the lecture was 'The Moral Side of Murder', which I found appealing, since my neighbours were being particularly maddening and I was hoping it might supply me with a justification for at least knocking off their dogs.

Needless to say, I didn't find what I was hoping for, but I did find some new - to me, at least - ideas. As this was the first lecture of the first year course in political philosophy, probably most of the content would be a complete yawn to most people - and my older daughter has already told me it's tedious rubbish - but, in case there is one other naive ill-informed person out there who might find it useful, here is a synopsis of the interesting bits of what Mr Sandel said.

First, he asked the students to decide what they would do, were they driving a trolley car towards five workers and they discovered that the brakes had failed but that they could steer off to the left, avoiding the five workers and only hitting one worker on the branch line. Needless to say, almost everyone chose to steer the trolley car onto the branch line, thus saving the five but sacrificing the one life.

Next, Sandel suggested that there was a trolley car whose brakes had failed heading towards five workers, with no branch line alternative. In this hypothetical situation, you would not be driving the trolley car but standing on a bridge watching the situation. Beside you, leaning right out over the bridge's parapet to see better, would be an exceptionally fat man. In order to save the five workers, all you would need to do would be to give the fat man a small push and he would fall in front of the trolley car and bring it to a halt. This did not seem such an appealing proposition as merely steering the trolley car off the rails. Most people refused to choose to push the fat man over. (Oddly, no-one suggested persuading the fat man to sacrifice himself.)

Then, Sandel invited the audience to imagine themeselves as doctors in an emergency room where five victims of a trolley car accident have been brought in. It becomes clear that one of them can only be saved if all the doctors work on him, but, if they do that, the other four will die. If the doctors choose instead to work on the other four, the one who is really gravely injured will die. Most people chose to sacrifice the one for the four.

Finally, Sandel puts forward the idea that we are doctors in an emergency room and the trolley car victims come in and it becomes clear that each of them can only be saved by an organ transplant - one needs a heart, one lungs, one a liver, one kidneys, one something else. There are no organs available. And then one doctor remembers that there is a man who came in for a minor piece of cosmetic surgery who has not yet come out of anaesthetic and is just down the corridor in the recovery room. It would be quite possible to sneak in and rip out all his organs and save five people, although he, of course, would die. Should you do that?

All of these, as my daughter pointed out impatiently, are absurd and extreme hypotheticals, but underlying them are real problems we do not usually choose to confront. Take the case of the final dilemma as an example: the idea that, if several people can be saved, an occasional healthy person should have their organs harvested does have a stark, although brutal, logic to it. If one recognises that, then surely it is necessary to try to examine why, in fact, it is wrong to put that logic into practice.

The way that Sandel explained things was as follows: he said that what our responses to the various problems highlight are that there are different ways to approach moral dilemmas. In these cases most people's responses oscillate between a Benthamesque kind of focus on consequences, where we decide that the rightness of our behaviour, the morality of what we do, rests in the consequences of our actions, as against a more Kantian approach where morality is located in certainties about duties and rights, regardless of any consequences. This last, Sandel referred to as a categorical approach.

No doubt everyone else knew this. For me, it was very thought provoking. I am amazed that I can be the age I am and still have such a lot to learn. I would have to add that I then watched a documentary called Secrets of the Tribe about the behaviour of anthropologists who lived with the Yanomami people and my newfound moral clarity did not help me at all to decide who, if anyone, involved in the whole sordid story covered by the programme had acted with good faith - it is a film well worth seeing, although it does nothing to raise the status of the dubious academic field called 'anthropology.'


  1. Of course, that whole discussion is premised on the idea that it is a bad thing to die, and that people should try to stop other people dying - well, as many other people as they can. What if we accepted that, sad as it is, everyone will die, and that some people will die young, or at least before they get old. That would change the way we thought about all the debates you were talking about.

    Science, and medical science in particular, is very focused on preventing death in individuals (although not, apparently, in war zones). It's very hard to move your brain to a place where you say "Yes, but does it really matter, when we all have to die anyway." Mine isn't there yet, but I do object to people thinking there is a human right to life in every situation.

  2. Blimey M-H, you're more thought provoking than telly. To engage with your argument would take more than a comment box, but after thinking about it fairly carefully, I still believe that moving your brain all the way to a place that says, 'Yes, but does it really matter' is not a great idea (although I am fully aware of all the murky realms that medical science leads us into with its propping up life interventions, which are frequently unwanted and counter-productive)

  3. Sorry, just being the Devil's Advocate. :)