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Peeling back the moral layers

| Thursday, November 11, 2021

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

“The Good Place” is a show that I would recommend to almost anyone. It cleverly combines humor with a compelling storyline all underlined by deep moral and philosophical concepts and questions. In one episode, the show, like many other shows before it, recreates the infamous trolley problem: The hypothetical situation where there’s a runaway trolley speeding down the tracks and heading straight toward five people unable to move because they are tied down to the tracks. With the pull of a lever, however, the trolley will switch tracks — saving the lives of those five innocent people but hitting one person who’s tied down on a second path.

This hypothetical problem has been driving people crazy since the 13th century with the moral dilemma that YOU have to choose whether to kill five people and save one (by doing nothing) or to save five people but kill one (an action, and a life, that you would be directly responsible for, since you were the one who pulled the lever and switched the tracks). In the show, Chidi, the moral philosophy professor whose fatal flaw is his inability to make decisions, is unable to make this horrible choice and ends up plowing into the five workers. In another simulation of the scenario, he chooses to pull the lever yet sees that the one person he chose to kill was his friend.

The famous trolley problem demonstrated in “The Good Place” led me to look into the doctrine of double effect, which is what this moral dilemma supposedly exemplifies. The doctrine of double effect says that “if doing something morally good has a morally bad side-effect it’s ethically OK to do it providing the bad side-effect wasn’t intended” even if “you foresaw that the bad effect would probably happen.” So, for the trolley problem, pulling the lever and killing the one person would be “ethically OK” because the original action was morally good (its purpose was to save five people) and the morally bad side-effects (killing one person as a result of switching the tracks), although horrible and foreseen, most likely wasn’t intended. The doctrine of double effect has also been applied to a lot of controversial topics like euthanasia and war.

Euthanasia is often justified by the doctrine of double effect, since the doctor knows they are virtually ending their patient’s life (obviously morally bad), but they are doing so to relieve their patient’s pain and distress at the patient’s or their family’s request. In this scenario, the doctor isn’t aiming to kill the patient. They are aiming to end the patient’s pain. So, the doctor’s action can be justified as “ethically OK” (ending the patient’s suffering) even though it has a “bad side-effect” (ending the patient’s suffering involved ending his life). I’m not saying I necessarily agree with that, but that is how the doctrine of double effect would “justify” it. Another example can perhaps be found in some situations in war. If a terrorist base is bombed and a civilian living nearby is unintentionally killed alongside the terrorists, according to the doctrine of double effect, this can be seen as “ethically OK” because the death of the civilian, although foreseen, was an unintended morally bad side-effect. Again, I’m not sure if I agree with this kind of logic, but these are some examples where this doctrine of double effect could be applied.

I’ll end this column by providing another example scenario which was brought up in “The Good Place,” not as an explicit example of this doctrine, but I think it can apply. It’s also an interesting example because it’s an action that everyone does: buying a tomato.

Obviously, buying a tomato is not explicitly an ethically bad thing to do. But, in the show, they explain how buying that tomato is also contributing to the carbon footprint of that tomato’s production, the unethical conditions and treatment of the tomato harvesters and the use of toxic pesticides used to grow that tomato. So, by making the decision to buy the tomato, the unintended consequences are “ethically bad.” This is an exaggerated example, but it still does apply in a way. The doctrine of double effect might seem like it makes moral dilemmas simpler, but I think it makes a complicated life even more complicated because “justifying” the bad consequence doesn’t make the consequence any better.

If the consequential and moral layers of our every action — from political decisions to consumer and everyday choices — were peeled back in the way that the doctrine of double effect does, we would probably drive ourselves crazy.

Megumi Tamura is a sophomore from New Jersey currently living in McGlinn Hall. She enjoys reading books, going to museums and eating Jersey bagels. She can be reached at [email protected] or @megtamura on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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