How Should Bob Stop the Train from Hitting that Child and Dog?

Let’s start with a little thought experiment from Peter Singer’s “Singer Solution to World Poverty.”
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed —but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents (picture courtesy of Eastern Horizon).
Bob's conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children.
Most of us will respond this way. My students often hem and haw on the matter but when confronted with the actual value of children’s lives versus the value of a Bugatti, they acquiesce and agree that Bob should put the Bugatti in front of the train. We can and should sacrifice for the health of others. I can be happy without a Bugatti.

Now complicate the story a lot. Imagine there were two people who came and talked to Bob. One begins carefully and calmly explaining that there is a train coming well before he can see or even hear it. The train will certainly kill the child but it can be stopped if he goes down the rail and throws some switches that will slow the train down and divert it. There is another man dressed to the nines who shows up and says there is nothing to worry about. The kid will be fine. Everything is fine.

This back and forth goes on for some time. A dog joins the child down the tracks. Bob isn’t sure what to do.

The first man remains calm but his warnings get more urgent, saying the child and the dog are in peril. Several others join him. We can’t be certain the child and the dog will move. There are uncertainties but this is not going to go well. The well-dressed man on the other side of the tracks might be partially responsible for the train to begin with.

The other man insults the first man, calling him an alarmist. The train probably isn’t even there, and if it is, it will probably do the child and dog a great deal of good. “Trains are fun. Kids love trains! Heck. Dogs can even enjoy trains!” Billboards, advertisements, and TVs show up all making fun of the first man and his friends as radical villains involved in a conspiracy. A couple of scientists show up with him too. They work at think tanks. The ads depict the second man as a hero. Talk show hosts like this guy.

Bob is still confused. The first group gets much bigger. A general from the Army joins them. So does an insurance actuary. They still calmly, but urgently, explain that it is too late to flip the switch. "The risks are high." Bob might have to drive his car and jump from it into train’s engine and activate the brakes and blow the whistle. They still use technical language but they are pretty clear. They claim that the second man is profiting from the train going faster and that he is responsible for the trains speed and power. Strangely, the train might suddenly accelerate.

If Bob doesn’t act soon, the only choice might be to put his Bugatti on the tracks if he is to save the child and dog at all.

The second man, now draped in an American flag and joined by a group calling themselves The Bugatti Patriots are shouting about a global anti-Bugatti conspiracy. The scientists and general have a cabal trying to steal your and my wealth and redistribute it. “Socialism!” “The New World Order!” More billboards and ads and TVs. A few of them wave hockey sticks with the word “LIES!!!” written on the stick’s blade. On the other side is a hammer and sickle.

Activists show up with the scientists. “You are going to kill the children!” they scream at the nicely dressed man. “The dog is doomed. When the train crashes it’s going to take out everything down there. We need to build special life boats.” “Down with civilization!” one yells.

Here comes the train!

For the past several years, citizens of our country have had scientists explaining that people burning fossil fuels are driving climate change, that climate change is accelerating, and that we urgently need to do some things to slow down and adapt to climate change. Every major scientific organization studying climate agrees on this. Every. Single. One. The American military, security intelligence, and insurance sectors agree. If we don’t our children and the biosphere (the child and the dog) are in grave danger (see climate change risk map at right). But of course, there are vested fossil fuel interests, people funded by those interests and a conservative authoritarian movement who discount, misinform, or outright deny human-induced climate change.

How do we make good decisions in such an environment? How do we make good judgments? What are the risks? What’s the right thing to do?

Today we are going to talk about the dilemmas climate changes poses to us. On the first half of the show Dr. (Juris) Don Brown will get us started. He has worked with the Clinton administration, the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium, is Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Penn State, and is the primary blogger for Climate Ethics. He is also the first presenter for "Changing the Moral Climate on Climate Change." We will talk about the problems with the disinformation campaign from the “merchants of doubt,” distinguishing between skepticism and deceit. How should we deal with the climate change disinformation campaign?

After the break, Seth Baum will join us. He is the Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, an affiliate of the Blue Marble Institute Space Institute of Science. Among their areas of concern are “include nuclear warfare, climate change, pandemics, and artificial intelligence.” What are the risks from climate change and how should we handle them? What do we do with the proverbial Bugatti?

Listen in on today, Friday April 27th from 4-5 pm. Call in (814) 865-9577 with questions and comments. You can also join us on Facebook and Twitter as well.

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