A runaway trolley is coming. You are standing at a switch in the tracks. Should you save the five people tied to one branch of tracks, or the one person stuck on the other? Is the life of the one person more important than the lives of the other five people?
Here is the twist: The lone individual is an acclaimed scientist, while the other five are manual laborers. One will do great things, while the others will probably live average, mundane lives. Even inaction is an action, so you are stuck with a choice and solely responsible for saving the lives of one or five.
This scenario is a variation of one of the most famous ethical dilemmas — the trolley case study, used in classrooms and ethics courses around the country. It is a tricky case, in which there is no clear “right answer.” The dilemma prompts students to ask important questions, and it illustrates the murkiness of ethics. For some students, the lack of a correct answer leads them to embrace a relativistic ethic.
The problem with the scenario, though, is that it leads people away from the most important question: Why are humans valuable?
The value of a human life is not found in the economic equation.
This variant of the trolley scenario essentially understands humans in a utilitarian manner. Humans are producers and consumers.
Indeed, we humans certainly consume. We eat, wear clothes and require raw materials in order to produce. We also produce. We create music, art, literature, vehicles, power tools and other cultural products.
However, Christians should beware social structures and economic systems that view humans as solely producers or solely consumers. Both errant views result in versions of utilitarian ethics that diminish the value of humanity.
When we view humans solely as producers, then their value becomes tied up in their positive contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A person’s worth, then, depends on how much they earn, how they contribute to the bottom line and what they have done lately for the common good. Some people will be seen as valuable—those that develop life saving vaccines, for example. Other people will be seen as less valuable—those that merely scrub toilets and sweep the floors.
On the other hand, when we view humans solely as consumers, their value is fixed by how much or little they consume. What is the bottom line cost of this person’s existence? Do they require routine medical care? Has their “quality of life” diminished so that they must be hand-fed in the nursing home? People are seen as more or less valuable depending on their contribution to the common good. One need look no farther than Peter Singer’s justification of euthanasia and infanticide to see how detrimental this view is. In fact, his justification for preserving the life of a pig over a human infant depends on measuring the resource consumption of the infant in comparison to the pig.
Seeing humans as mainly consumers has fueled the population control movements among some environmentalists. Paul Erlich’s 1968 volume Population Bomb sent ripples of concern about the world’s population growth. His dystopian predictions of starvation and degradation spurred Richard Nixon to create a special commission on population growth and the American future. This commission counted humans largely as a debit against society and the natural resources of the world. Not surprisingly, the commission came out in favor of federal funding for contraceptives and advocated for legalization and promotion of abortion. Humans are mainly consumers, they reasoned, therefore limiting the population is the best way to reduce consumption.
Either side of this utilitarian calculus seems cold and inhumane. But they are the natural result of reducing humans to their economic impact.
The Inherent Value of Humans
As Christians, we reject these utilitarian understands. Humans have inherent value—they give glory to God by living. The mere existence of the individual human is a testament to God’s greatness in creating, designing and sustaining life. We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). However you work out that theological concept, it means no human is a throwaway.
As we talk about economics, we need to make sure we understand how humans are both producers and consumers. But we can never forget the value of a human life is not found in the economic equation. It’s found in our reflection of the goodness of God.
How should we solve the trolley problem? It’s unlikely we’ll ever face with the choice. If we do, then we need to make a quick decision and get to work saving whoever is in the trolley’s path. Many times the good things that seem impossible only become impossible because we don’t try to do them.
That may seem like a non-answer, but the scenario poses a non-question. We can’t know the future: the scientist may invent a technology that kills millions. One of the five may do something spectacular we couldn’t imagine in the future. The scenario is an impossible one, and it ignores our real calling to be as faithful as possible with whatever opportunities we face. Our failure to figure it all out in an instant is a reason to be thankful for grace.