Do you push the big man in front of the runaway trolley?

Timberline adds Philosophy 12 to next year’s course offerings

You are operating a trolley. The trolley is rolling down a track, but your brakes have given out and there are five workers on the track ahead. You are going to kill them all. They can’t hear you coming due to the noise from their machinery.

You have an out, though. There’s a way to switch tracks where there is only one worker who will be killed by the runaway trolley.

Do you switch tracks?

Most people will say, “Of course you switch tracks and kill fewer people! What kind of question is that?”

Okay, so how about this one:

There’s a runaway trolley. This time you’re not operating it, but watching the scenario take place. Again, it’s headed for those same five workers and will surely kill them.

But there’s a very large man leaning over in front of you, watching the same thing you are. One little nudge would push him onto the tracks in front of the trolley, which will certainly kill him, but he’s big enough to stop it from killing the workers. Do you push him?

Most people, says Timberline Secondary teacher Tylere Couture, would not push the large man to save the five workers.

“What’s the difference?” Couture rhetorically asked the crowd at a School District 72 Board of Trustees meeting last week.

You might be asking yourself a different question right now.

Maybe something like, “Why are they talking about killing people with trains at a School Board meeting?”

Well, Couture was asking the board to approve a Philosophy 12 course he developed for implementation next year.

“Philosophy is a passion of mine, and obviously I’d like to teach my passions,” Couture told the board.

“We ask (our students) in every course to think critically – we ask them to apply critical thinking skills everywhere – but we don’t actually have the opportunity to teach them those critical thinking skills. I think this course provides an opportunity to fill that gap.”

What’s the right thing to do? What is “truth?”

And what did the greatest thinkers throughout history think about these fundamental or foundational questions that govern our lives and our society?

In the above scenario, where you’re driving the trolley, Couture says the foundational principal is an ethical framework called utilitarianism.

“You’re trying to do the most good for the most people, so you obviously switch tracks. It sounds simple and obvious,” Couture summarized.

But if you’re using that principle – doing the most good for the most people – why wouldn’t you also push the big man onto the track to save the five workers? That’s clearly the choice to be made using that foundational ideal.

But the world is a complicated place, and ethics and fundamental theories of thought are no different.

There are no right answers in philosophy, just more questions, which Couture says is the whole point.

Whatever answer you come up with to answer the question “what is the right thing to do?” there’s another scenario that, “throws a wrench into what you thought was the right decision,” Couture said.

“Part of the goal of the course is to play a small part in creating more self-aware citizens, but to install a little epistemic humility, as well.”

“It’s reminding me of my own time studying philosophy at university,” said board chair Susan Wilson during the discussion about approving the course. “It was such a mind-opening experience, and I really think it’s fantastic that you’re offering it to students at the high school level. It’s something that I wish everybody could experience – to have that opportunity to open your mind to different ways of thinking.”

The course was unanimously approved by the board and will be offered during the 2016-17 school year at Timberline as an academic elective.