A Leader’s Dilemma: Spinning the Moral Compass

Two summers ago my wife and I attended the Aspen Institute‘s Ideas Festival with my mother.

One of the many great takeaways was a keynote dialogue with Michael Sandel in typical and great Socratic fashion. He opened with moral dilemma.

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?

Resistance to this course of action seems strong

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.

Consequential 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.

Catagorical Morality

~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?

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——————–
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

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5 Responses

  1. There is another choice in both scenarios. In scenario 1, the leader can choose to sacrifice himself and driving the trolley out of track–which means he can kill himself and save the other 6 people

    In scenario 2, the leader should evaluate any alternatives to killing the large man, including evaluating whether his own weight can stop the trolley.

    By not including sacrificing himself in the choices, he loses the moral argument in either way.

  2. These scenarios were originally posed in Sandel’s podcasts of his undergraduate course at Harvard made available to graduates. I listened to all of them, and learned a tremendous amount.

    The greatest thing I learned is that it is impossible to analyze these issues in the absence of a moral philosophy that is derived outside of a logical framework – a world view – that must exist independent of your own thinking. There is no way that, adopting any one particular philosophical view, you can come to a series of moral choices and always be “right”. At base, there is always something tugging at your thinking (soul?) that maintains that what you are doing is not “right”.

    Where do we get this concept of “right” and “wrong”? I am a firm believer in what CS Lewis wrote in “Mere Christianity” — we are born with it. The problem with what has happened in the past 50+ years is that we have abandoned a concept of “right” and “wrong” — everything is relative. For example, would it make a difference if the man tied to the tracks, or the man beside you, was a convicted child molester? What if he just told you this, and repented of what he had done? Are we more condemning than Jesus on the cross? If so, what gives us this right?

    Forthunately, most moral issues are not presented with the rapidity of the hypotheticals. We have time to reflect on the different approaches. I have found that the most important of these is respect of the individual: if they have made a wrong decision, help them to understand why and how they should have approached the issue. If they are not willing to change their thinking, then they are too big a risk to the organization.

    • Hi Win,

      Thank you so much for your discussion reply! I like your point of view. I think you are correct in your view on all of your points! Thank you for your thoughtful insights.

      After checking your profile, I think that you might be very interested in joining me on the Linked 2 Leadership Group. We focus on leadership development, organizational health, and personal & professional growth. See us at http://tinyurl.com/JoinL2LGroup for more info.

      You also might want to look at our very popular blog called The Leadership Collaboratory. We have over 40+ Contributing Authors sharing their experience, expertise, and heartbeat on 12 related topics. You or someone you know may be interested in contributing… Check us out at http://linked2leadership.com. Make sure you check the Article of Faith tab on the top of the page

      Thanks again for comments!

      ~Tom
      —————————————–
      Tom Schulte | Executive Director | Linked 2 Leadership
      Atlanta, GA USA

  3. All trolleys should have been built with deadman switch!

  4. [...] A Leader’s Dilemma: Spinning the Moral Compass « Linked 2 Leadership [...]

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