Runaway trolley leads first Emerson Ethics Lecture Series talk

by Dina Kleiner / Beacon Staff • September 11, 2014

A civilian saw five people tied together in the path of an oncoming runaway trolley. He realized, suddenly, that he was standing next to a lever that would divert the trolley’s direction. But there was another person on the other track. The civilian weighed two options: do nothing and watch the trolley kill five people; or pull the lever so that the trolley redirects its course and kills the person on the side track instead.

This situation is a classic thought experiment called the “trolley problem.” Emerson students were introduced to this hypothetical, and other extreme scenarios, during the first few minutes of a lecture, Reining in Extravagant Hypotheticals: From Runaway Trolleys and Ticking Bombs, held on Tuesday.  

Notebooks in hand, students from multiple schools filled the Little Building’s Charles Beard Room. 

Georgina Holmes, a graduate student of the Ethics and Public Policy master’s program at Suffolk University, attended the lecture alongside many Emerson students.

“I was super impressed by the turnout of Emerson students,” Holmes said. “It seemed like Emerson students are a lot more tuned to questioning ethics and philosophy.”

Charles Fried and his son, Gregory Fried, were the guest speakers. Charles Fried, a Harvard Law professor, and his son, Gregory Fried, the philosophy department chairman at Suffolk University, spoke with students about the influence of extreme hypotheticals on real life ethical issues, such as the current turmoil in Gaza.

“My favorite part was the conversations where Gregory and his dad answered questions,” Holmes said. “They were really approachable.” 

Much of the lecture came from the Frieds’ book, Because It Is Wrong: Torture, Privacy and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror, which they wrote together. The book, like the lecture, looks at ethical obligations and moral paradoxes, concluding that torture should never be permitted.

“Torture is a cancer that spreads quickly and changes the entire culture,” Gregory Fried said.

Throughout the lecture, the Frieds discussed how certain influences, from terrorist attacks to shows like 24, escalate the application of extremes to real world issues. Both speakers said they denounced using excessive means as a preemptive strike against unlikely circumstances.

Gregory Fried called to attention the subtle yet severe influence that pop culture has on society’s perspective of torture.

“These are very powerful hypotheticals changing young people’s minds, especially for the US, a country regarded for its morals that would disapprove of torture,” Gregory Fried said.

This was part of a new lecture series, Emerson’s Adventures in Ethics, organized by professors Pablo Muchnik and David Kishik. Muchnik said they included this lecture with the hopes that it will inspire students to further challenge the ethical and moral presence in modern policies, whether it be nuclear bombing, the government withholding information, or national and international current events.

“We wanted to find a theme that would have clear relevance for contemporary issues,” said Muchnik. “We thought of this problem prior to Ferguson and prior to the situation in Israel, but it couldn’t have been more timely.” 

The lecture, according to Gregory Fried, beckoned students to reconsider their preconceived notions of what makes a “good” versus “bad” hypothetical. 

“My hope,” said Muchnik, “is that is that [students] will be a little more savvy and less easy to dupe by the media and the type of signification of violence that is so popular and so prevalent in popular culture.”