An Upcoming Ethical Dilemma for Parents

You are standing at a fork in a trolley track, your hand on the lever that can cause the trolley to go one direction or the other. A trolley is coming toward you. If you do not pull the lever, it will go down the fork where five children are on the track. They will surely be killed. (They are tied up, or facing the wrong direction and deaf, or what have you.) If you do pull the lever, their lives will be saved, but your own child, who is immobile on the other fork, will be killed. What is the ethical thing to do?


This is possibly the earliest in a famous series of ethical dilemmas known as trolley problems.

The fun begins when we vary the scenario to tease out people’s moral intuitions. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson posed the most famous version:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? [quoted in Wikipedia]

Most people recoil from the idea of pushing the fat man onto the track, but if the fat man is the one on the second fork, so if you pull the lever he will be killed instead of the five children, more people are OK with that even though the calculus of lives comes out the same. Our moral intuitions are not entirely rational.

Now here’s a scenario of my own design. Suppose your child is the only person riding on the trolley. There’s nobody on either fork of the track. You hear on the radio that a certain bridge over which the trolley is set to travel has collapsed and your child will be killed. Fortunately, you are still at the switch. You can divert the trolley to the safe track by simply pulling the lever. What should you do?

Not much of a dilemma is it?

In fact, we might say that this situation is so clear-cut that a parent who fails to pull the lever should face legal charges. Do you agree?

Take a moment to think of your answer.

Now suppose that your child is still in utero and instead of pulling a switch to divert a trolley you have a chance to switch off a gene that would cause a devastating, life-shortening birth defect. Gene-editing technology has become available that enables you to do so inexpensively and safely. Are you ethically obligated to provide this gene therapy for your child? Should you be legally required to do so?

This is not yet a present-day scenario, but it is coming down the tracks just as surely as all those trolleys. Let’s prepare by thinking about it now. What are your thoughts?

(Thanks to a recent article in The Atlantic for pointing out the coming dilemma.)

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