Two summers ago my wife and I attended the Aspen Institute‘s Ideas Festival with my mother.
One Tough Leadership Decision:
“A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by the mad philosopher. You, as a Leader, have the ability to pull a lever and direct the trolley down a different track. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track.”
Should you pull the lever?
A utilitarian view asserts that it is obligatory to pull the lever. According to simple utilitarianism, pulling the lever is not only permissible, but morally speaking, would be the better option (the other option being no action at all).
While simple utilitarian calculus seeks to justify this course of action, some non-utilitarians may also accept the view. Often the problem is stated with a mad philosopher initiating the dilemma.
Opponents might assert that, since moral wrongs are already in place in the situation, pulling the lever constitutes a participation in the moral wrong, making one partly responsible for the death when otherwise the mad philosopher would be the sole culprit. Opponents may also point to the value of human lives.
It might also be justifiable to consider that simply being present in this situation and being able to influence its outcome forms an obligation to participate. If this were the case, then deciding to do nothing would be considered an immoral act.
A Different Perspective:
Some critics argue that the real fact of producing an all-inclusive moral theory, capable of addressing with clarity such staged or otherwise very real dilemmas, might not be attainable after all.
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge over the tracks, and you can stop the trolley by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very large 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?
Most people who approved of sacrificing one to save five in the first case do not approve in the second case.
This has led to attempts to find a relevant moral distinction between the two cases.
One clear distinction is that in the first case, one does not intend harm towards anyone – harming the one is just a side-effect of switching the trolley away from the five. However, in the second case, harming the one is an integral part of the plan to save the five. – Wikipedia
The Leader’s Moral Compass:
What Michael Sandel is teaching us is the difference between Consequential Morality and Categorical Morality.
~is when the consequences of actions, making morality inseparable from context. i.e. when we are given certain events, our circumstances can change how we act – the trolley driver diverting the train to kill one to save five.
~is always described as principally being a function of how an act impacts the affected i.e. in the trolley dilemma killing 1 to save 5 is wrong.
As a leader, have you had to make decisions where the only available choices were “the lesser of two evils?” What criteria do you use to evaluate the moral consequences of your leadership decisions? Have you ever been in a position where you had to sacrifice one team member to save the entire team? Would you choose to pull the lever or push the man off of the bridge? Do you feel either scenario is justified?
Gary Cohen is Author, Speaker (on leadership) & Executive Coach at CO2 Partners
He serves clients with executive coaching and leadership coaching services
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Edited by Ken Jones
Image Sources: teamchurch.org