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“Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”, Michael Sandel (Episode 1: The Moral Side of Murder & The Case of Cannibalism)

EPISODE 1, PART ONE: The Moral Side of Murder

Suppose you’re the driver of a trolley car, and your trolley car is hurdling down the track at sixty miles an hour and at the end of the track you notice five workers working on the track. You try to stop but you can’t. Your brakes don’t work. You feel desperate because you know that if you crash into these five workers they will all die. Let’s assume you know that for sure. And so you feel helpless until you notice that there is off to the right a side track and at the end of that track there is one worker working on the track. Your steering wheel works so you can turn the trolley car if you want to onto the side track killing the one but sparing the five. Here’s our first question: What’s the right thing to do? What would you do?

This time you’re not the driver of the trolley car, you are an onlooker. You’re standing on a bridge overlooking a trolley car track and down the track comes a trolley car. At the end of the track are five workers. The brakes don’t work. The trolley car is about to careen into the five and kill them and now you’re not the driver, you really feel helpless until you notice standing next to you, leaning over the bridge is a very fat man. And you could give him a shove, he would fall over  the bridge onto the track, right in the way of the trolley car. He would die but he would spare the five. Now… how many would push the fat man over the bridge? Raise your hand. How many wouldn’t?

This time you’re a doctor in an emergency room and six patients come to you –they’ve been in a terrible trolley car wreck-. Five of them sustained moderate injuries, one is severely injured. You could spend all day caring for the one severely injured victim but in that time the five would die, or you could look after the five, restore them to health, but during that time the one severely injured would die. How many would save the five –now as the doctor-? How many would save the one?

Now consider another doctor case. This time you’re a transplant surgeon and you have five patients each in desperate need of an organ transplant in order to survive× one needs a heart, one a lung, one a kidney, one a liver and the fifth a pancreas. And you have no organ donors. You are about to see them die and then it occurs to you that in the next room there is a healthy guy who came in for a checkup and he’s taking a nap. You could go in very quietly, yank out the five organs –that person would die but you can save the five-. How many would do it?  

photo uploaded by: Harvard University

EPISODE1, PART TWO: The Case of Cannibalism

This time a real-life story, the case of the Queen versus Dudley and Stephens. This was a nineteenth-century British law case that’s famous and much debated in law schools. Here’s what happened in the case. I’ll summarize the case and then I want to hear how you would rule imagining that you are the jury. A newspaper account of the time described the background: “A sadder story of disaster at sea was never told than that of the survivors of the yacht Mignonette. The ship foundered in the south Atlantic, thirteen hundred miles from the cape. There were four in the crew, Dudley was the captain, Stephens was the first mate, Brooks was a sailor –all men of excellent character or so the newspaper account tells us-.

The fourth crew member was the cabin boy, Richard Parker, seventeen years old. He was an orphan. He had no family and he was on his first long voyage at sea. He went –the news account tells us- rather against the advice of his friends- he went in the hopefulness of youthful ambition thinking the journey would make a man of him. Sadly it was not to be.

The facts of the case were not in dispute. A wave hit the ship and the Mignonette went down. The four crew members escaped to a lifeboat. The only food they had were two cans of preserved turnips –no fresh water-. For the first three days they ate nothing. On the fourth day, they opened one of the cans of turnips and ate it. The next day they caught a turtle. Together with the other can of turnips, the turtle enabled them to subsist for the next few days and then for eight days they had nothing –no food, no water-. Imagine yourself in a situation like that. What would you do?

Here’s what they did: By now the cabin boy Parker is lying at the bottom of the lifeboat in a corner because he had drunk sea water against the advice of the others and he had become ill and he appeared to be dying. So on the nineteenth day Dudley, the captain, suggested that they should all have a lottery. That they should all draw lots to see who would die to save the rest. Brooks refused. He didn’t like the lottery idea. We don’t know whether this was because he didn’t want to take that chance or because he believed in categorical moral principles but in any case no lots were drawn.

The next day, there was still no ship in sight so Dudley told Brooks to avert his gaze and he motioned to Stephens that the boy Parker had better be killed. Dudley offered a prayer, he told the boy his time had come and he killed him with a pen knife stabbing him in the jugular vein. Brooks emerged from his conscientious objection to share in the gruesome bounty. For three days the three of them fed on the body and blood of the cabin boy. True story.

And then they were rescued. Dudley describes their rescue in his diary with staggering euphemism, quote: “On the twenty-fourth day as we were having our breakfast, a ship appeared at last.” The three survivors were picked up by a German ship. They were taken back to Falmouth in England where they were arrested and tried. Brooks turned state’s witness. Dudley and Stephens went to trial. They didn’t dispute the facts. They claimed they had acted out of necessity –that was their defense-. They argued in effect “better that one should die so that three could survive”.

The prosecutor wasn’t swayed by that argument. He said murder is murder and so the case went to trial. Now imagine you are the jury and just to simplify the discussion put aside the question of law and let’s assume that you as the jury are charged with deciding whether what they did was morally permissible or not. How many would vote not guilty –that what they did was morally permissible-? And how many would vote guilty –that what they did was morally wrong-?  

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