Hurricane Dilemma should Scientists Meddle – No

In the classical philosopher’s dilemma, there is a runaway train which, if allowed to continue on its current path, will kill hundreds of people when it hits the buffers. However, it is possible to divert its course so that, when it eventually hits the buffers at an alternative location, the death-toll will be counted in tens. Now, the question is, is the person with control of the direction of the train more guilty of murder by commission or omission – or both?

Surely the most sensible way to deal with this scenario, were it ever to leap out of the theoretical page and into real life, would be to find some way of slowing the train down well before it hit the buffers or, were that not possible, to mitigate the damage by getting the train to hit where there would be the least damage – to property: human life is sacrosanct, but people can be evacuated.

In another scenario – your government wants your country to go to war with another country, for perfectly legitimate reasons, let us suppose. You are in a democracy, and as the mood of the country is for peace, it would be electorally disastrous to go on the offensive. So you either arrange for a few ‘planes to attack an isolated, out-of-the-way airbase, or concoct some other carnage – either of which can be blamed on enemy combatants. Hey presto – instant crowd control. Now, is it wrong to sacrifice the people killed unwittingly in the greater interests of the country?

The answer, unequivocably, is yes. Once more, human life is sacrosanct and, whilst wars are sometimes unavoidable – defeating the Nazis was a necessary endeavour: toppling Saddam Hussein was not, objectively speaking – the subterfuge of elected representatives (“minister” – as elected representatives are called in the UK – means “servant”, after all)is unacceptable. And when that subterfuge involves the taking of innocent lives in the thousands, then it becomes intolerable.

In the scenario presented – okay, so a city is trashed: cities can be rebuilt, often better than before. But a rural area – farms, crops, foodstuffs, livestock – surely these are much more important than the artificial grandeur which, at the final analysis, means nothing. Of course, it would be better if neither area were destroyed, but in a disaster, what’s more important?

The answer has got to be that what sustains lives more is more important. Of course, we all need shelter – but in an emergency, many things can serve – caravans, tents even. But without food, none of us can live long.