“. . . and what I want to know is if anyone here would push the fat man off the bridge. would any of you?”
“remember, you can’t stop the trolley car any other way. again, imagine that it’s hurtling down the tracks towards the crowd of innocent people, and the fat man is fat enough-” he chuckles wryly “he’s fat enough to stop it. would any of you, you know, push him off?”
silence. someone coughed. a few people shifted in their seats, and the rustle sifted through the auditorium. everyone still had on their parkas and fleeces. it was cold outside the heavy oak doors.
“alright, so what’s happened here? in every one of these situations i’ve given you, not everyone would do the same thing…i mean, no one said they’d push the fat man off the bridge. and everyone gave me more or less legitimate reasons do do or not to do what i offered in the situation. so-” he clapped his hands together and clasped them “what’s happening here?”
he waited for a few moments, then his face brightened and he pointed out into the darkness of the hall.
“aha! we have a hand up. give him a microphone, will you? what do you think we’ve learned through these situations?”
a voice came through the hall, sounding simulated and unreal through the microphone.
“professor, this may sound like something of a tangent, but i think it has to do with the discussion.”
“well we’re not in a math class, so go ahead.” he smiled and chuckled again.
“what do you think it is to be…i guess you’d say, ethical? what do you think it is to be ethical?
the professor looked up and chewed on his lip for a moment.
“i’d say, in a small sense, i’d say that it’s doing what’s right. but in a larger sense, well-” he smiled and scratched the back of his neck “you’ll make me give away the punch line of the course.”
soft laughter through the hall.
“well, i only ask because i think i might know where you’re going with this, and i-”
“where do you think i’m going?”
“well, it’ll give away your punch line, but i think you’re going to say that there isn’t really a right or wrong in any of these situations. and that there isn’t a right or wrong in any specific situations. is that what you were going to say?”
“bingo.” he smiled and clapped.
there was a smattering of obligated claps around the auditorium. the amplifiers buzzed slightly as the voice laughed nervously into the mic.
“well, and i know not everyone agrees with me here, but i think that that poses…well it might present some problems, and i think that-”
“what kind of problems?”
“well, i guess, people doing what they want, and anything that they think is right or, or beneficial to them.”
“well that’s certainly a possibility, but if everyone does what’s beneficial to themselves, won’t it be, you know, alright for everyone?”
“but don’t you think there could be conflicts of interest, i mean eventually?”
“hm…well, that’s correct. but i still don’t understand your point. we’ve already seen that there isn’t a specific right or wrong in any of these situations or, as far as i can tell, any other situation. i mean, what else can you do? you sort of have to accept that, don’t you? by the way, to everyone else, i’m sorry. i don’t usually give students this much time on the mic because of the time constraints. i’m just curious as to what this gentleman has to say.”
“well, you can accept it, but i don’t think you have to.”
“i think the problem has to do with the way that we’ve been looking at specific situations, not as a whole. i mean, not looking at ethics as a whole.”
“isn’t that how you have to look at ethics?”
“well yes, but you’re not going to find how to act ethically from looking at specific situations.”
“i don’t think what we’ve been talking about is really ethics, to be honest.”
“well,” he chuckled again, this time rather irritatedly “the name of this class in the course catalogue is, after all, ‘overview of ethics’…”
“yes, yes, i don’t want to be trite, sorry. it’s just that, uh, aristotle said that ethics wasn’t how a person acted in specific situations.”
the professor raised his eyebrows slightly.
“he said that ethical behavior was, sort of, a lengthy process. he said basically that it was a way of life and a way of looking at life. it’s a fundamental way of life. it’s…” he searched for a word “it’s enduring. is that right?”
“well, that’s one way of looking at it. what’s your point?”
“i think my point is that unless you look at ethics as a way of life, something that’s enduring and fundamental, then you…” he paused to collect his thoughts “if you look at it as separate and unrelated situations and try to decide what you’re going to do, then of course you won’t find a universal right or wrong.”
silence. the professor looked out at the voice.
“does that make sense?”
“thank you sir, you can sit down now.”
there was an echoing rattle as the microphone was passed off. the prof looked up, then at his watch.
“well, i think i’ll let you all go a few minutes early today.”
a low buzz and hum rose as students got up and started collecting their things. they started filing out the door.
“oh and don’t forget, essays are due next tuesday at the start of class.”