Lifeboats, Trolleys, and Ethics

My first encounter with formal ethics included the virtually obligatory paradigm of the ultimate dilemma associated with human behavior. More often than not, that dilemma is presented at the very beginning of a discourse on ethics. Its threadbare description takes the form of a ‘loaded’ question: If there are six fishermen on a sinking vessel with a single lifeboat that can stay afloat with only five of them, what ethical course of action should the fishermen take? Stripped to its core, the question asks, “Which one of the six men should die so the others may live?” From there, ethicists proceed to open Pandora’s Jar. Complex and ponderous arguments chase after each other in a maze of circular reasoning in quest of an answer.

But back on the sinking vessel, the fishermen have a simple answer: they draw sticks. Fishermen know what to do when confronted with a life-or-death situation before they set out to sea. A sinking vessel is not conducive to a discussion on ethics.

More recently, the lifeboat riddle has been replaced by that of a racing trolley which will kill lots of’ people unless a switch is pulled that veers it into another path, thereby exposing only one track worker to certain death. Do you pull the switch or do nothing? Oh…and there’s still another popular scenario…the one where six people can be saved if six vital organs of one healthy man were to be distributed among them. Do we proceed with the transplants? The dilemmas remind me of an aunt I had who, being poor, would give each of her daughters the same doll as a gift, birthday after birthday, as though the doll were new, by sewing a new dress onto it each year.

Like the dolls, ethics has had new dresses sewn onto it through the centuries but its study had always been in the realm of the humanities, not the sciences. The study of ethics, widely considered a branch of philosophy, included an enormous range of issues, of course, but its scope was limited to the behavior of humans as issued by nature, i.e., the behavior of a whole human being.

Enter neuroscience. There are neuroscientists who reduce the very concept of ethics to the level of automatic reflexes. They ascribe moral behavior to automatic activity in specific regions of the brain as the source of ethics. To paraphrase a Biblical passage, if your neurons, dendrites, and axons offend you, desensitize them. Of course neuroscientists are not required to shed light on the source of ethics, but their brain research tends to equate thought processes with involuntary bodily functions.

As technology increasingly reveals the functions of brain matter, region-by-region, synapses by synapses, the fundamental source of ethics is paradoxically illusive. Add to that the fashionable philosophic current that denies any substantive difference between humans and animals, and the source of ethics becomes more illusive than ever. In place of a conflict between right and wrong (or good and evil) we have a conflict between the medial frontal gyrus and the posterior cingulate gyrus. Whole human beings are lost in the laboratory.

Since I have only one life to live, knowledge of the source of ethics is not nearly as important to me as how I choose to live my life. Perhaps I’m simplistic, but morality is not as complicated to me as most ethicists make it out to be. In any case…

  1. Contrary to the notion that morality is tested during the direst of circumstances as depicted by morality riddles, the quality of an individual’s behavior is determined by calm reason and its application to everyday living, not on board a sinking vessel.
  1. As laudable as the scholarship of the best ethicists may be, there is really no need for the categorization of ethics. ‘Personal Ethics’ as distinguished from ‘Business Ethics’ is a contradiction in terms.
  1. I’m not troubled with an afterlife. I live as I do, not to avoid being a beetle next time around,” or for the approval of others or of a personal God, or in anticipation of rewards or in fear of punishment in this or any other life. If I were provided with absolute proof that either death ends me or that there is an afterlife, I would continue perfecting my moral behavior as an end in itself. That includes ‘doing unto others’ and maintaining my integrity even when no one is watching.

Ethics is an art, an exquisite blend of knowledge, wisdom, and empathy. Its elegant simplicity may be expressed in quiet acts, often wordlessly, and not necessarily acknowledged by others.

Best of all, I live as I do because I enjoy an ethically integrated life. 

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