“What interesting thing did you learn at school today?”
“Huh?” Madison looked up from her mashed potatoes and fixed her gaze on her mother. “Oh, sorry. I’m so tired. What’d you ask?”
“Tell me something interesting from school today,” Jenny repeated.
“Hmm. Well, we talked about the trolley problem in psych,” Madison said.
“That sounds familiar,” Phil offered. “What’s it about?”
“Okay, so you are standing there on the street minding your own business and out of nowhere this trolley comes flying over the hill out of control,” she explained.
“Well that would be exciting,” Phil said.
“Right? So on its current course, it’s going to smash into a market and certainly kill a bunch of people. There’s a lever and you could pull the switch to divert the trolley. But the catch is that there’s a mother pushing a baby stroller on the other track. So it’s still gonna kill someone no matter what. Do you pull the lever?”
“Well, yeah,” Phil said. “Right? Because it’s better that it kills just a couple people than a whole lot of people.” He looked at Jenny. “Right?”
“I don’t know,” Jenny said. “If you just leave things as they are, it’s like God’s will. But if you pull the lever, aren’t you committing murder?”
“Greater good, though,” Phil argued. “And not acting is doing something, just as much as acting is. Didn’t Buddha say something like not making a decision is itself a decision? Or something like that?”
Jenny looked at him, puzzled. “Buddha?”
Phil smiled and shrugged. “Ghandi? I don’t know. I probably read it on a meme on Facebook or something.”
“Marilyn Monroe or Abe Lincoln, probably,” Madison offered.
Phil laughed. “So what’s the right answer?”
Madison shrugged. “There isn’t one. There’s arguments to be made on both sides. My teacher said it’s used as an example of the different choices utilitarian and deontological systems of ethics lead to.”
“Deontological?” Jenny asked.
“Pretty sure that was the word,” Madison said. “I guess it’s like do the ends justify the means. Some people argue that the outcome is all that matters, and others argue that you need to follow the rules no matter the consequence. And then there are lots of different versions of the problem. Like, for example, suppose that mom is the one pushing the carriage. Are you still going to pull the switch, Phil?”
“Hell no,” he said.
“Thank you, dear,” Jenny said with a sweet smile.
“So what system of ethics says it’s okay to off someone you don’t know for the greater good, but if you know them, then all bets are off?” Madison asked.
“My system, apparently,” Phil said.
“So what do you think?” Jenny asked.
“I think I’m never moving to San Francisco. Life there is too complicated.”
“And expensive,” Phil said.
“No, seriously, though,” Jenny asked again. “What would you do?”
Madison shrugged. “I don’t know. I see both sides. I think if it really happened, I’d probably freeze and not pull the lever. So maybe that means my gut is deontological. I think maybe it’s wrong to sentence the innocent woman to death, even if doing so would save a lot of other people.”
“God’s will,” Jenny repeated.
“I guess. Like I said, I think I’d freeze. I’m not really the action hero type,” Madison said. “Not like Phil here.”
“I’m getting too old for this shit,” Phil said.
“Phil! Language!” Jenny scolded.
“It’s from a movie. I’m allowed to swear if I’m quoting a movie,” he pleaded.
“What movie?” Madison asked.
Phil grimaced as he thought. “Die Hard?” He paused. “No! Lethal Weapon. Danny Glover said that, I’m pretty sure.”
“Never heard of it,” Madison said.
“Mel Gibson saves a bunch of people from a runaway trolley,” Phil deadpanned.
“No! Really?” Madison asked.
“That was Speed, and it was a bus, and it was Keanu Reeves,” Jenny corrected.
“I had her going there for a second though,” Phil said.
“Why were you talking about this in psych?” Jenny asked. “Seems like since it’s about ethics, that belongs in… Actually, I don’t know where they’d teach that now. Ethics class isn’t a thing anymore, right?”
“Not unless you go to seminary, I imagine,” Phil said.
“Beats me,” Madison said. “I guess it’s because it’s about decision making, codes of conduct, stuff like that. All that stuff is tied to psychology. Or maybe my teacher just wanted to talk about it. Sometimes he talks about Australian Rules Football. I don’t think that’s particularly related to psych, either.”
“I, for one, am curious about the psychology of Australian Rules Football,” Phil said.
“Me too,” Jenny added.
“I’m too tired. Let’s talk about that tomorrow,” Madison pleaded.