Brains, trains, and ethics

ESSAY QUESTION (30 points)

INSTRUCTIONS: making abundant use of course materials, compose a closely reasoned essay answering the following question bearing on one of the course’s central themes (ethics and technology). Limit: 6 Blue Book sides.

Consider the following case:

On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take. On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphan’s bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would grow up to become a tyrant who would make good, utilitarian men do bad things, another would grow up to become John Sununu, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, “Leftie,” and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, “Leftie” will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of “Leftie’s” act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by “Leftie” are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and “Leftie” are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available, however the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.

Assume that the brain’s choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of its decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain such that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.

QUESTION: Ethically speaking, what should the brain do? Justify your answer.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

Share This Post On


  1. Without the love and knowledge of God, either decision will be wrong (unethical); the ensuing destruction pointless and evil, just as any ensuing ‘good’ will be without real goodness.

    With the love of God and submission to His will, all things work toward good and therefore be ethical, so either choice has the same ethical value.

    The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is indeed bitter. The attempt to arrive at any ethical decision by utilitarian calculations alone is evil in and of itself.

    The assumptions underlying the question are wrong (unethical) so the whole exercise conducted on those premises and assumptions is wrong (unethcial).

    Post a Reply
    • Ah, well, ethics is about principles – it’s impersonal by nature. It seems to always come down to what “one” should do; it’s about judging other people. Kind of antithetical to Orthodoxy. The Church is allergic to almost anything systematic, so you’re not going to catch many OrthoFolks doing Jesuitical moral calculus.

      Also – you got that the article is parody, right? :-)

      Post a Reply
      • Yes, but there are folks out there who actually think that way. So I used it as a way of addressing the assumptions of such thought mostly to myself actually.

        That, and I had a flashback to college and saw a blank blue book in front of me. Ah well.

        Post a Reply
  2. Ummm …. is the brain male or female?

    And which railroad worker is wearing the orange shirt?

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *