One vs. Many

Posted on Posted in Philosophy

If you have ever sat in a philosophy class, then it is likely that you have encountered a vague scenario that has you choose between one life and many lives. The scenario proposed in my class went as follows: Someone puts you in a booth that controls two paths of railway tracks. A train is barreling down unable to stop. To the left, one life sits in a boxcar. To the right, many lives sit in a boxcar. You can only flip the switch to decide whether the train hits and kills the passenger to the left or the passengers to the right.

The scenario is vague on purpose. You need to choose within the abstract concept. However, as I reminisced on this particular day in class, I decided to take it a step further. Let’s remove the abstract and add in new variables. After all, real life doesn’t deal in the abstract. As I have gotten older, I have come to understand that there are no absolutes. Everything exists in shades of gray as opposed to black and and white photos of faces

First Response

On that day in class, my professor went around the room and had each student say whether they would save the one or the many. Like most of my class, I said many. You have to assume each life is equal and saving more lives seem obvious.

You know the old “greater good” adage? We see it in superhero movies. Then they break the rules by saving both cars and stopping the train just in the nick of time. Save as many people as possible. A few risk their lives to save the many. We view it as noble. While the circumstances are different than the given scenario, saving the many is still favored.

Adding Variables

At this point, I won’t hesitate to say save as many people as possible. I will always say that, except maybe if the variables change. Is there any situation that would cause me to say the one over the many? Initially, I came up with a group of regular strangers vs. the man on his way to discover the cure for cancer. After analyzing that response, I realized I still chose many, but with respect to the future. The net yield over a given time would be saving more lives, though in the present it would seem as though I chose to save one over the many.

How about the scenario favored by movie script writers: the one you love vs. a group of strangers. You are not only sacrificing the one life, but you are sacrificing part of yourself as well. You are giving up your heart and the life of one to save a group of people you do not know. This makes it more complicated. There is no longer an initial gut response answer. Honestly, I’m not sure I can accurately answer this question. Part of me would say save the group because it feels like the right thing to do, but it’s at a price that I may not be able to pay.

Now let’s say the scenario is one well adjusted working individual vs. a group of adult drug addicts. My first thought would be the one well-adjusted individual, but as I considered it further I ended up leaning toward saving the many again. This scenario examines my perception of a person’s worth. I believe there is a social obligation to contribute to society. The drug addicts are not contributing and are arguably a drain on society. However, how many successful recovery stories out there exist? We always think of drug addicts as these homeless people on the street, but I knew of a wife and mother that overworked and was in physical pain that ended up addicted to drugs. This would be a supposition since I still would not know any of the individuals’ stories. If two of this group were able to turn their lives around, is that not worth it for them to try?

What if the group was convicted criminals meant to serve life sentences vs. the one well-adjusted individual? Then my response would be to save the individual. While it is possible for the criminal to be redeemed and contribute to society, they will be a drain on society until their release, and some criminals end up committing another offense. Therefore, I would choose the one individual who is and will continue to contribute to society.

What if the scenario is one human vs. many animals? Would it matter on the species of animals? What if it was a group of animals that were necessary to feed and sustain life for a group of people? Then, by association, you’re saving a group of people by saving the animals vs. the one human.


By posing different scenarios, my answer changed. I did not always choose to save the many, however, most often I did. I would choose to save the individual initially if I believed it would save many more in the future, even without that guarantee. Life very rarely would put us in a situation where we can weigh things equally, and therefore we often have to make choices that though initially, we would generalize to be wrong, ends up seeming like the best solution. I think studying different scenarios also demonstrates that there are no absolutes.

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