Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Ethics and God

Here is an ethical dilemma I head on a radio talks how hosted by a Rabbi:

You are a subway control station operator. There are construction workers in two tunnels that are non operating, but a runaway train is headed down one of the tunnels. If you do nothing it will go down the tunnel and kill 5 workers. But if you divert it, it will go down the other tunnel and kill only one worker.

The Rabbi who was posing the problem said that the proper response, according to a deistic viewpoint, is to do nothing because action on your part would mean a lack of faith and dictating to God who lives and who dies.

He compared it to this scenario:

There are 5 people who will die if they don't get organ transplants. All the organs could come from one person but harvesting the organs will obviously kill him. So, choosing the lives of the 5 over the single person would be the same as sending the runaway train down the tunnel with one guy.

I disagree. For two reason. First of all the analogy between the first and second postulation is flawed. In the second one, you have a volitional act of murder to harvest the organs. In the first one, you are thrust into a scenario where a decision must be made. It's a subtle difference, but one that I think is very important.

My opinion is based on the necessity of tactical and strategic decisions that determine who lives or dies in times of war. Commanders have to choose who's on the front line, whether to leave someone behind, how hard to try to free prisoners, etc. Battlefield surgeons have to decide who to distribute their limited time and supplies to, and who to let die. Simple inaction due to some kind of ethical stance is completely inappropriate for individuals in those positions. I believe God can direct them if they are open to it, and they can make the right choices. (I also believe ethics divorced from God is nonsense because without a transcendent authority all morality and ethics becomes a matter of subjective opinion.)

So using the battlefield as an example where tough who-lives-and-who-dies decisions, I can carry that logic over to the example of the subway tech. He has been put in a position, without choice, (And I would argue: by God's will) where he has to make the same kind of decision that an officer in a battle would have to make. God would want both the operator and the officer to make a decision. Failure to do so would be a lapse of duty and immoral.

But then here is where things get really murky for the rules-oriented ethics geek. If God is our authority… well we can see by example that He makes decisions that break the rules of man-made ethics all the time. He hardened Pharaoh's heart, killed the first born of every Egyptian, swallows armies whole, devastates cities for their sin, and most profoundly, sends his own Son to death for those who wish to be saved. God seems very unethical. I say 'seems' because I humbly accept that there are elements of reality that I am not privy to. The biggest one that I think relates to ethics is the afterlife and how our current stay on earth affects it. You see, ethics tends to reach its limit when it comes to death. I think that is because it is a man-made construct and men don't know anything about the hereafter. Therefore all ethical dilemmas that involve death are flawed from their inception. Death is not the ultimate evil. Separation from God is. Autonomy and freedom of choice are not the ultimate good. Union with God is. Since both of these occur after death it's ridiculous to put death as the end game of any scenario.

So would God want the subway operator to direct the train to the single guy or the five guys? Ethics can't answer that, only God can. Does God want us to blindly follow ethical rules instead of being sensitive to His leading? Ask the Pharisees.