I’ve been listening to the World Service quite a lot of late and I have to say I’m really taken with one of their programme trails. It’s a poem which poses two ethical conundrums for the listeners to consider before pointing them towards a two-part documentary called ‘Would you kill the big guy?’. It’s not often a radio trail moves me to Google something, but the poem was so interesting and well-delivered that I wanted to know who had written it. I later found out that it was actually the promo producer Ben Motley that penned it, inspired by W.H. Auden’s ‘The Night Mail’, whose meter reflects the rhythm of an old steam train on the tracks.
The mix of words (beautifully read by Nigel Carrington) and the music make this into a fantastically engaging 45 seconds of audio – I suggest you take a listen. It’s a very good radio promo:
The text of the poem is here, in case you can’t:
Here comes a train and it’s out of control
Blasting its whistle and belching out coal
Up ahead there are five people tied to the track
It’s going too fast and there’s no turning back
A flick of a switch and the train will divert
to a line where the five people will not get hurt
But there’s one person already tied to that line
So do you flick the switch, or do you decline?
Now you are standing upon a footbridge,
As another train heads towards certain carnage
Five people tied up – but you have a plan
Beside you is standing a very large man.
If you push the man onto the track down below
His massive bulk will cause the engine to slow
You’ll save five lives but the large man will die
So the question is: would you kill the big guy?
I listened to the first of the two programmes this morning and was fascinated to hear that for the first situation, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, even children tend to opt to take the action which kills one person rather than five, but when it comes to pushing someone off the bridge, the majority of people wouldn’t do it, despite the chance to achieve the same final outcome of saving more people. According to the programme, research has shown that if you were to introduce a button and a trap-door into the second situation, so that you didn’t have to use your own muscular power to push the big guy in front of the train, the ratios change again, and people are more likely to take the action that results in the untimely death of the big guy.
Another situation they consider in the programme was that of a doctor who has five patients who need organ transplants, and a healthy patient comes to see the doctor. Should the doctor sacrifice one patient in order to save the others? It was interesting hearing the children’s thoughts on this, as they struggled with balancing the number of lives saved versus their innate notion that killing someone was wrong. Most agreed that it would not be right to kill the healthy patient in order to save the five others, but it made for a good discussion.