Headmaster’s Thoughts – December 2011

I have the privilege of teaching a course called “Ethics” to our seniors. Most teachers think their class is the most important, and I am no exception. “Vanitas, Vanitas, omnia Vanitas!

What the class has become–and this is a work in progress that has changed every year for many years–is an increasing attempt to get students to debate each other on the choices they might make in difficult and, admittedly, strange situations. I do try to present a historical curriculum of ethical philosophy, but that only provides the backdrop to the sort of questions that noted philosopher Philippa Foot first posed at Oxford when I was there. She asked: “What would you do if faced with a downhill runaway trolley that left unchecked would kill five people, and you had the choice to divert the trolley onto a siding by pulling a switch, thus ensuring the death of only the one person on that siding?”

Trolleyology, or quandary ethics, as this type of dilemma is called, assumed more reality after 9/11. Would you shoot down hijacked planes heading for Manhattan before you knew (although probably you could make a very intelligent guess) where or what they intended to hit? This is an intellectual exercise that keeps on giving. It (for just one of many examples) morphs into arenas like “Spelunkology”, which asks whether you would blow up a fat man who has blocked your exit from a cave where you and your friends are trapped as the water rises. (You conveniently have with you a stick of dynamite.) You can use Trolleyology as a jumping off point to debate basic questions about redistribution of wealth. Is it permissible to take from the rich and give to the poor?

Along the way, there have been many recorded legal cases to discuss with the students. My favorite is Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, a Victorian case in England in which starving sailors on a shipwrecked lifeboat ate the cabin boy to survive. There is a line in the trial transcript which, describing their eventual rescue, actually reads: “After breakfast, a sail was sighted on the horizon.” One wonders what part of the cabin boy constituted breakfast.

Dr. Foot, back in the day, asked: “What if the only way to stop that runaway trolley and save the five people was by pushing a fat man off a bridge onto the trolley tracks (and to his certain death)?” To the queasy who did not like the idea of physically pushing someone, she gave the option of the fat man sitting on a trap door which dropped him when you pressed a button. I could go on with different scenarios but similar dilemmas.

Trolleyology, in the end, leads to the most fundamental questions about family, discrimination, and medical choices. The great Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Appiah wrote: “Being deluged with trolley problems is one of the professional hazards of modern moral philosophy.” Certainly, the multiplicity of dilemmas on Trolleyology can lead to boisterous discussions among the students. The seniors seem to divide into groups–the libertarians, the utilitarians, the liberals, and the “I think this but I don’t know why” group. Since there are never right or wrong answers to most questions in Ethics, I frequently feel like a ringmaster as students argue in debates that are only stopped by the end of the period (and, which I hope, continue among the class members when I am not there.)

One of the main objectives of the course is to try to get students to think creatively (or, to use a most common cliché, to “think out of the box”) and to consider issues that they have never had to think about before. There is some method in this madness, because the “old” days of one career for life may be a thing of the past for many of our students. The reality is that just when today’s young thinkers have learned one set of skills, they may need to switch jobs, learn a whole new skill set, and (here is the point) face totally new problems. Technological advances promote new career paths as they render others obsolete.

I am lucky that this is a terrific senior class, most of whom are not afraid to speak up in front of their peers. If I had to generalize, I would say that they are more conservative than my cohort was at their age. They seem to (back to my Latin quote about my vanity) enjoy arguing about difficult problems, which augurs well for their futures. They challenge each other–and me–with vigor and intelligence, and they keep me on my toes as they perform intellectual gymnastics to further their arguments.

So, a man walks into a doctor’s office where there happen to be five patients in desperate need of different organs due to some strange trolley accident. The man, who is in perfect health, wants a flu shot, but if the doctor cuts him up he could save all of his five patients. What to do?

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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