Sunday, February 18, 2007


A train is speeding along the tracks, I told my readers. If it continues on its current route it will hit and kill five people. If the engineer hits a button, however, the train will switch tracks and hit only one person -- who will die as a direct result of the engineer's action. If you were the engineer, I asked, would you continue on your course or hit the button?

Predictably, readers visiting my column's blog engaged in a heated discussion about which option they'd choose.

"Either way someone will get killed," writes William Dyson of Fairburn, Ga. "The right thing to do is to have as few people as possible die. He should hit the button."

That opinion was seconded by Ron Davis of Huntington Beach, Calif.

Rick Randolph of Fountain Valley, Calif., disagrees, however. By doing nothing, he says, the engineer "would have caused an additional four deaths." By pressing the button, he saves four lives.

But Dave Hosseini of Sacramento, Calif., would not change tracks.

"The engineer has no right to determine that the one person should die rather than the five," he explains.

For Beverly Canton of Newport Beach, Calif., the question isn't that simple.

If she saw that the five "were mainly elderly citizens and the one was a child or young adult," Canton writes, she would continue on course so that the young person could live -- a bold position for Canton, who at 75 acknowledges that she might find herself among those five on the tracks.

Check out other opinions at or post your own by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below or sending them to

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Anonymous said...

I read your article in the London Free Press and the comments received are interesting. One option not discussed is "Even though you have a speeding train with four people on one track and one on the other, What's to say the engineer shouldn't apply the brakes. The third option is "Apply the trains brakes and stop the train saving all the lives under consideration.

Kitty said...

...trains do not stop that fast...

I have to avoid this one because , well, who would want to even imagine being in that circumstance?
I'm not putting anyone down for responding. I do not do that.
It is just that the thought of the circumstances gives me the 'willies'.
I apologise, but I do not perceive this to be an ethical question.

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...