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Category Archives: dilemmas

>By Pat

Here are two different discussion topics which I use. They generate a lot of conversation and the students really enjoy them, even when it makes them uncomfortable. It also provides some insight into the thought processes. There are some demographic diferences as well (age, marital status, gender, child). One interesting thing which I have noticed is that almost 95% of thewomen choose their husband last to save from the boat. Kind of sobering, specially when I am marrying a Chinese woman.

The train

You are walking along a set of railroad tracks and you hear a train whistle in the distance behind you. As you approach a river, you notice, to your horror, that the train bridge over the river has been destroyed. At the same time, you hear a cry for help from some one in the river who is drowning. It is your child, the only one you can have. You have time to EITHER save your child OR the train, which is carrying 250 people. Who do you save? Why?

The sinking boat

There is a boat in the middle of the ocean, which is sinking. In this boat is your mother, your father, your child, and your husband/wife. If the boat sinks, everyone in the boat will die. If you could only save one, whom would you save? Who would you save second? Third? Last? Why?

More moral dilemmas:

The following is a list of some moral dilemmas, mostly adapted from Moral Reasoning, by Victor Grassian (Prentice Hall, 1981, 1992), witha couple additions. The question to consider with all of these is why they are dilemmas. Some, however, may not seem to be dilemmas at all.

1. The Overcrowded Lifeboat

In 1842, a ship struck an iceberg and more than 30 survivorswere crowded into a lifeboat intended to hold 7.

As a storm threatened, it became obvious that the lifeboat would have to be lightened if anyone were to survive. The captain reasoned that the right thing to do in this situation was to force some individuals to go over the side and drown. Such an action, he reasoned, was not unjust to those thrown overboard, for they would have drowned anyway. If he did nothing, however, he would be responsible for the deaths of those whom he could have saved.

Some people opposed the captain’s decision. They claimed that if nothing were done and everyone died as a result, no one would be responsible for these deaths. On the other hand, if the captain attempted to save some, he could do so only by killing others and their deaths would be his responsibility; this would be worse than doing nothing and letting all die. The captain rejected this reasoning.

Since the only possibility for rescue required great effort sof rowing, the captain decided that the weakest would have to be sacrificed. In this situation it would be absurd, he thought, to decide by drawing lots who should be thrown overboard. As it turned out, after days of hard rowing, the survivors were rescued and the captain was tried for his action. If you had been on the jury, how would you have decided?

2. A Father’s Agonizing Choice

You are an inmate in a concentration camp. A sadistic guard is about to hang your son who tried to escape and wants you to pull the chair from underneath him. He says that if you don’t he will not only kill your son but some other innocent inmate as well. You don’t have any doubt that he means what he says. What should you do?

3. Sophie’s Choice [not in Grassian]

In the novel Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron (Vintage Books, 1976 — the 1982 movie starred Meryl Streep & Kevin Kline), a Polish woman, Sophie Zawistowska, is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. On arrival, she is “honored” for not being a Jew by being allowed a choice: One of her children will be spared the gas chamber if she chooses which one. In an agony of indecision, as both children are being taken away, she suddenly does choose. They can take her daughter, who is younger and smaller. Sophie hopes that her older and stronger son will be better able to survive, but she loses track of him and never does learn of his fate.

Did she do the right thing? Years later, haunted by the guilt ofhaving chosen between her children, Sophie commits suicide. Should she have felt guilty?

4. The Fat Man and the Impending Doom[with parts cut out in the 2nd edition]

A fat man leading a group of people out of a cave on a coast is stuck in the mouth of that cave. In a short time high tide will be upon them, and unless he is unstuck, they will all be drowned except the fat man, whose head is out of the cave. [But, fortunately, or unfortunately, someone has with him a stick of dynamite.] There seems no way to get the fat man loose without using [that] dynamite which will inevitably kill him; but if they do not use it everyone will drown. What should they do?

5. The Costly Underwater Tunnel

[compare: 112 men were killed during the construction of Hoover Damon the Nevada-Arizona border — the first was a surveyor, J.G. Tierney, who drowned on December 20, 1922, and the last was his son, Patrick Tierney, who drowned on December 20, 1935 — 13 years to theday after his father.]

An underwater tunnel is being constructed despite an almost certain loss of several lives. Presumably the expected loss is a calculated cost that society is prepared to pay for having the tunnel. At a critical moment when a fitting must be lowered into place, a workman is trapped in a section of the partly laid tunnel. If it is lowered, it will surely crush the trapped workman to death. Yet, if it is not and a time consuming rescue of the workman is attempted, the tunnel will have to be abandoned and the whole project begun anew. Two workmen have already died in the project as a result of anticipated and unavoidable conditions in the building of thetunnel. What should be done? Was it a mistake to begin the tunnel in the first place? But don’t we take such risks all the time?

6. Jean Valjean’s Conscience[with some comments]

In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the hero, Jean Valjean, is an ex-convict, living illegally under an assumed name and wanted for a robbery he committed many years ago. [Actually, no — he is only wanted for breaking parole.] Although he will be returned to the galleys — probably [in fact, actually] for life — if he is caught, he is a good man who does not deserve to be punished. He has established himself in a town, becoming mayor and a public benefactor. One day, Jean learns that another man, a vagabond, has been arrested for a minor crime and identified as Jean Valjean. Jean is first tempted to remain quiet, reasoning to himself that since he had nothing to do with the false identification of this hapless vagabond, he has no obligation to save him. Perhaps this man’s false identification, Jean reflects, is “an act of Providence meant to save me.” Upon reflection, however, Jean judges such reasoning “monstrous and hypocritical.” He now feels certain that it is his duty to reveal his identity, regardless of the disastrous personal consequences. His resolve is disturbed, however, as he reflects on the irreparable harm his return to the galleys will mean to so many people who depend upon him for their livelihood –especially troubling in the case of a helpless woman and her small child to whom he feels a special obligation. He now reproaches himself for being too selfish, for thinking only of his own conscience and not of others.

The right thing to do, he now claims to himself, is to remain quiet, to continue making money and using it tohelp others. The vagabond, he comforts himself, is not a worthy person, anyway. Still unconvinced and tormented by the need to decide, Jean goes to the trial and confesses. Did he do the right thing?

7. A Callous Passerby

Roger Smith, a quite competent swimmer, is out for a leisurely stroll. During the course of his walk he passes by a deserted pier from which a teenage boy who apparently cannot swim has fallen into the water. The boy is screaming for help. Smith recognizes that there is absolutely no danger to himself if he jumps in to save the boy; he could easily succeed if he tried.

Nevertheless, he chooses to ignore the boy’s cries. The water is cold and he is afraid of catching a cold — he doesn’t want to get his good clothes wet either. “Why should I inconvenience myself for this kid,” Smith says to himself, and passes on. Does Smith have a moral obligation to save the boy? If so, should he have a legal obligation as well?

8. The Last Episode of Seinfeld [not in Grassian]

The cast of Seinfeld, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer, have a layover in a small New England town. They witness a robbery in broad daylight. The robber has his hand in his pocket, and the victim shouts that the man has a gun. As soon as the robber runs away, a policeman appears on the scene; but instead of pursuing the robber, he arrests Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer for having violated the new “Good Samaritan” law of the town.

Since the four of them spent the time of the robbery making fun of the victim, who was fat, their role in the matter doesn’t look good, and at their trial everyone who has ever felt wronged by them in the course of the television series testifies against them. They are convicted.

Is this just? What were they supposed to do during the robbery? Should they have rushed the robber, just in case he didn’t really have a gun?

9. A Poisonous Cup of Coffee

Tom, hating his wife and wanting her dead, puts poison in her coffee, thereby killing her. Joe also hates his wife and would like her dead. One day, Joe’s wife accidentally puts poison in her coffee, thinking it’s cream.

Joe has the antidote, but he does not give it to her. Knowing that he is the only one who can save her, he lets her die. Is Joe’sfailure to act as bad as Tom’s action?

10. The Torture of the Mad Bomber[cf. Clint Eastwood’s movie, Dirty Harry]

A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended.

Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture.

This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree? If you do, would it also be morally justifiable to torture the mad bomber’s innocent wife if thatis the only way to make him talk? Why?

11. The Principle of Psychiatric Confidentiality[cf. the 1997 movie, Devil’s Advocate, on lawyers]

You are a psychiatrist and your patient has just confided to you that he intends to kill a woman. You’re inclined to dismiss the threat as idle, but you aren’t sure. Should you report the threat to the police and the woman or should you remain silent as the principle of confidentiality between psychiatrist and patient demands? Should there be a law that compels you to report such threats?

12. The Partiality of Friendship

Jim has the responsibility of filling a position in his firm. His friend Paul has applied and is qualified, but someone else seems even more qualified. Jim wants to give the job to Paul, but he feels guilty, believing that he ought to be impartial. That’s the essence of morality, he initially tells himself. This belief is, however, rejected, as Jim resolves that friendship has a moral importance that permits, and perhaps even requires, partiality in some circumstances. So he gives the job to Paul. Was he right?

13. The Value of a Promise [Compare with the role of David Cash in the murder of Sherrice Iverson by Jeremy Strohmeyer.]

A friend confides to you that he has committed a particular crime and you promise never to tell. Discovering that an innocent person has been accused of the crime, you plead with your friend to give himself up. He refuses and reminds you of your promise. What should you do? In general, under what conditions should promises be broken?

14. The Perjured President[not in Grassian]

A long time Governor of a Southern State is elected Presidentof the United States on a platform that includes strong support for laws against sexual harassment. After he is in office, it comes out that he may have used State Troopers, on duty to protect him as Governor, to pick up women for him. One of the women named in the national press stories as having been brought to the Governor for sex felt defamed because she had actually rebuffed his crude advances, even though he had said that he knew her boss — she was a State employee.

She decides to clear her name by suing the now President for sexual harassment. The Supreme Court allows the suit to proceed against the sitting President. Because the sexual harassment lawshave been recently expanded, with the President’s agreement, to allowtestimony about the history of sexual conduct of the accused harasser, the President is questioned under oath about rumors of an affair with a young White House intern. He strongly denies that any sexual relationship had ever taken place, and professes not to remember if he was even ever alone with the intern. Later, incontrovertible evidence is introduced — the President’s own semon on the intern’s dress — that establishes the existence of the rumored sexual relationship. The President then finally admits only to an ambiguous “improper relationship.” So the question is: Is it hypocritical of the President and his supporters to continued to support the sexual harassment and perjury laws if they do not want him to be subject to the ordinary penalties for breaking them?

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