If You Could Save a Family

By Monica Hileman

April 30, 2015

“There’s a family traveling on a train headed for a collision in which the three of them will be killed. But you can save them by pulling a lever that will switch the train onto another track. Would you pull the lever?”

“Sure.”

“But wait, there is a man lying on that other track who would die. Would you still pull the lever?”

“No.”

The grad student moved his pen, checking off my answer. He seemed bothered by it. We were sitting at a small table in a white, windowless room in the basement of the psychology building. A leaflet tacked to a bulletin board in the lobby offered ten dollars for participating in a short interview. I wasn’t doing it for the money; a friend in the department had asked me to take part.

“I guess most people say yes.”

“There’s no right answer,” he said.

“Better to save three lives than just one—mathematically better.”

“Now you’re standing on an elevated platform with that same man, and a train is about to pass beneath, heading into a collision that would kill a family of eight, but instead of pulling a lever to save them, you could cause the man standing next to you to fall to his death onto the tracks, in front of the train, so that his body stops the train. Let’s say he weighs three hundred pounds, which is just enough to stop the train in time.” 

“Cause him to fall? You mean push him?”

“Right.”

“I didn’t set up the situation; why should I be the one to determine the outcome? I mean, who am I to judge whose lives are more valuable?” I was conscious of the video camera in the corner of the ceiling pointed down at us. “What if the mom and dad happen to be deranged cannibal serial killers,” I went on, “and the man on the platform is a brilliant medical researcher on the brink of discovering a cure for cancer?” 

The grad student touched the end of his pen to his forehead. “We don’t know anything about them.”

“If saving the family is imperative, then shouldn’t I sacrifice my own life, throw myself down on the tracks?”

His mouth hung open a moment before he spoke. “Nobody’s said that.”

“Really? That’s the most obvious answer, isn’t it?”

“Wait, no,” he said. “You don’t weigh enough to stop the train.” He sat back in his chair, relieved to have thought of a reason.

“But the man is still a man and shouldn’t be thought of as a three-hundred-pound weight.”

“That is what he weighs, and he could stop the train.”

“Not for me. I wouldn’t pull the lever, and I wouldn’t push him.”

“Even if you could save the family?”

“It’s not up to me.”

He pushed an envelope across the table and said, “Thank you for taking part.”

“So you would do it? You would push the fat man?”

He sighed. “Well, it makes a better story.”

 

Monica Hileman. Originally from the Chicago area, Monica lived in Portland, Oregon before moving to Boston. She has an MFA from the University of North Carolina. Her stories have appeared in journals such as Georgetown Review; The Baffler, and the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal. Another is forthcoming in South Dakota Review. She currently lives just north of Boston.