Ethics, Tuck Everlasting, and the Trolley Car Dilemma

Arthur Miller

In my 4th grade GT class yesterday, we came to the part in Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, where Mae Tuck hits The Man in the Yellow Suit with the barrel of a shotgun.  For those of you who have not read the story, The Man in the Yellow Suit learns the location of a spring that gives anyone who drinks its water eternal life.  He wants to advertise and sell the water, and to forcibly use a young girl, Winnie, as living proof of its effectiveness.  The Tucks don’t want the secret given away – and don’t want Winnie to be taken by The Man in the Yellow Suit.  So, Mae conks him in the head with the gun.

This dramatic scene in the story always spawns the ethical question, “Is it ever right to use violence?”  When applied to Mae’s actions, the class of 15 students seemed to be somewhat split on whether she behaved appropriately or not.  Some, of course, argued that violence is okay when it is in defense of yourself or others.  Some felt that Mae had alternatives.

When pressed, though, all seemed to be absolutely certain that violence is right if you are protecting yourself or others – if it’s the only alternative.

I don’t like it when everyone is certain ;)

So, I posed a problem that I had heard on the radio.  Unfortunately, I got a few of the details wrong.  But, essentially, my scenario was the same as the one you can see in the video below, created by Professor Joyce Chaplin of Harvard (which I originally found on Larry Ferlazzo’s website).

The way I told it was: Suppose you are on a bridge, and you see that there is a train headed straight for a section of track that is broken.  If it gets there, the train will surely careen off the tracks and everyone in it will die.  But you can save them.  On the bridge is a button.  If you push it, the train will switch tracks.  The only problem is – there is someone on the second track.  He will not have time to get out of the way, and the train will not have time to stop.  Do you push the button?

Most of them said, “Yes!” But that’s not the end of the thought experiment.  Then I asked, “Well, what if there was no button, but there is a heavyset man next to you on the bridge.  If you push him on to the tracks below, he will stop the train, saving hundreds of people.  Would you do that?”

This was a little bit more disconcerting to them, and we discussed why.  Essentially, the math is the same, but…

Then, one of my students said, “What if the man you have to push was the President of the United States?”

Wow.  That really changed the conversation.  Are some lives more valuable than others?  Should we save a train full of hundreds of strangers or the President?

And then someone said, “What if you have family members on the train?”

There were more “what if” questions, and I loved them all.  Now, no one was certain.

Mark Twain once said, “Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”  I would borrow from Arthur Miller, and tweak Twain’s quote a bit by saying, “Education is the path from cocky ignorance to humble uncertainty.”

Students usually have no problem identifying black and white.  It’s admitting that there’s a gray that can be the greatest challenge.

(By the way, this is not a discussion, nor a video, that I would share with younger students.  There needs to be  a certain level maturity, and a classroom environment that allows for deep discussion, for this to be meaningful.)

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