Would you be able to kill a man?

Would you kill a stranger? For most of us, we respond to this vehemently refusing. Of course no rational person would elect to kill someone; that’s wrong. Our initial reaction is a strong one, because we’ve been conditioned to expect one right answer and one wrong answer. But let me explain the rest of the problem.

What if killing the stranger involved diverting a train that would most assuredly save five innocent people who otherwise would be killed? The moral dilemma presented with this question is a typical thought experiment in ethics, developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967— known as the “trolley problem.” Most people surveyed would pull the lever and kill the stranger. But now, what if you must push the stranger onto the tracks? The ethical dilemma is the same and the choice should be consistent, yet most people will not actively push the stranger onto the train tracks. The active role one must play changes the dilemma.

So now I’ll ask you again, would you kill the stranger, either through pulling the lever or throwing said person onto the track? Morality is a funny thing. Actually, funny probably isn’t the right word for it, but I guess that’s part of what I’m trying to say. When we were younger, right and wrong seemed so formulaic. Our teachers, parents, religious leaders all taught us to always do the “right thing.” But it’s not always that clear. Morality is funny, because as one experiences more of the world, it is clear that there is no single moral standard to which we all must adhere.

We’ve spent a lot of time pondering the future and what we will set out to do in the world. But I think something we need to focus on more is what kind of people we will become. What do we want to find important? To what standards should we hold ourselves? We are going to places that will certainly change us, but we should be aware which parts of ourselves we want to be molded and which parts we want to preserve. How we change and to what extent depends on our awareness and willingness to better ourselves.

The easy moral decisions — like the prohibition of murder, rape and theft — are just that — the easy ones. The other aspects of morality are harder. Morality is responsible for our ability to distinguish between what we perceive to be right and what we perceive to be wrong. How we formulate those theories and why we think one thing is wrong and another is right relates to how we will grow up and move on in our lives. Being able to make the easy moral decision says little about one’s character.

We’re all going through this bittersweet time as we approach graduation, and we have the time to reflect on our experiences here. We’re lucky on Chronicle that, in writing senior columns to do just that, we have an opportunity to reflect on our time. Harvard-Westlake has been a big part of our lives, but to date, the big moral issues have really only focused on whether to honor the honor code and whether to make social decisions that define who we are. But as we grow, the stakes are greater. With that, we must be more aware and take our decisions seriously.

 

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