Strike Them Down

There we were, Mrs. Lapin and I, breakfasting with friends on a rooftop patio overlooking the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  One of our breakfast companions is well connected with Israel’s high tech community and I immediately resolved to share with you what he disclosed to me. But first, by way of introduction, I must ask you a serious question.  Ideally, you’d want to wait to read this until you can quietly contemplate the implications of this enigma.

Imagine that you’re walking alongside a train track when you suddenly realize that a runaway train is rapidly bearing down. To your horror, you realize that in the next few seconds the train will hit five workmen on the track, all oblivious to their impending doom.

However, if you quickly pulled the track-switch lever right next to you, you could divert the onrushing train onto a siding where only one workman will be killed.  Would you be acting morally and ethically by doing so?  Some surveys show that a large majority of respondents believe the greater moral good will be served if they pull the switch to save five people by sacrificing one.

Same train but different scenario:  You’re on a bridge over the tracks. The only way to save the five workmen is by pushing a very large person off the overpass onto the track below where his body will derail the train. In the previous example,  you needed to  use your hand to pull the switch lever.  Now,  your hand would be giving a firm shove into the middle of the large man’s back.  Exactly the same result; one person sacrificed in order to save five.  The same surveys show that almost nobody feels this is moral and ethical.

Last question, I promise: Imagine you’re a super-surgeon.  You have five patients who are about to die unless they quickly receive replacement organs.  One needs a heart, two need a kidney each and the last two each need a lung.  You have a healthy young patient in for a shoulder dislocation.  While he is under anesthesia, can you remove his organs, thereby condemning him to a premature demise in order to save the lives of your other five patients?  Again, most people who happily pull the switch in the first example balk at this similar action.

I’m sorry if your head is aching but I inflicted all this philosophical pain in order to show you that morality and ethics cannot derive from your heart. They can’t even reliably derive from the head of your local university’s ethics professor. They derive only from God.

What did I learn on that Jerusalem rooftop a few days ago?  Companies like Google, Apple, and many more that are working on the software to allow self-driving cars, maintain research labs in Israel. They are coding ethical algorithms into those cars.  Whose ethics? Well, theirs of course.  Let me explain.

Your self-drive car is rolling rapidly but serenely down the street, when with no warning, the enormous 18-wheeler in front of it comes to a sudden stop.  If your car rams it, you will be killed.  If your car swerves into the lane to your left it hits a car carrying a mother and two young children. If your car swerves into the right lane, it hits a motorcyclist.

If you were driving and saved your life by a split-second instinctive swerve to left or right, nobody (except maybe you) would condemn you for the tragic deaths of the young family or of the motorcyclist.  But now, this is all going to be coded into your vehicle’s software and because your autonomous car is so very smart, it has to make its choice in advance.  The car manufacturers are wondering whether the moral decision is for the car owner’s life to be sacrificed. But they aren’t sure.

Before his death, Jacob blesses his twelve sons, starting with the oldest, Reuben, and concluding with Benjamin.  (Genesis 49)  Hundreds of years later, Moses blesses the twelve tribes of Israel, but conspicuously omits the tribe of Simon. (Deuteronomy 33)

One explanation offered by ancient Jewish wisdom for the omission, is that long ago, Simon, the second son, had been responsible for a moral and ethical lapse. When Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped by a local Hivvite aristocrat named Shechem, Simon unilaterally decided to murder every male in that Hivvite city, bringing his younger brother Levi into his scheme. (Genesis 34:25)

What made it particularly bad is that when their father Jacob rebuked them, the brothers justified it with their own argument of ethics and morality:

And they said, “Shall he make our sister like a harlot?” 
(Genesis 34:31)

This is precisely what the bogus academic field of ethics is all about.  Attempting to seize the definition of moral and ethical from God and the Bible where it has resided for millennia, today’s “ethicists” declare as ethical whatever their own tastes and predilections are.  Scientists can derive chemical formulae and mathematical equations, but ethics and morality are obtained not from scientific derivation but from Divine revelation.

Nowhere in Scripture are we advised to trade off lives.  God never says that an individual may take one person’s innocent life if by doing so he can save five.  Thus, a five-year old Jewish child raised in God’s definitions of morality could immediately solve the above train dilemmas that rattle secular adults.  Individuals do not have the right to choose one person to die even if doing so will save many. It really is that simple.

34 thoughts on “Strike Them Down”

  1. Justifying abortion to save a mothers life doesn’t fly. We’re no longer back in the 1800’s. Dr.’s know well ahead of time if there is trouble ahead for the delivery. Abortion is no longer necessary for such instances.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Right Gary–
      the discussion is purely theoretical today in order to help understand God’s moral principles

  2. What is the definition of “a mother’s life”? Does it mean life only? Does it mean financial, psychological, social or professional life? What is a “just war”? Most wars of the last 100 years have been fought on the grounds of social justice not independence or self preservation.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Robert–
      Yes it means exactly that–life. No such thing as a just war anymore than there is such a thing as ‘fair’ or ‘rich’ or ‘equality’. These things all sound rather appealing but lacking definition, they mostly resemble that Escher drawing of the staircase that loops back on itself. Interesting, thought provoking but utterly and completely non-existent. I think you should maybe go back and review your opinion that most of the wars in past 100 years were bout social justice. The Boer War 1900-1902 was Britain trying to seize the gold and diamonds of the Transvaal in which well over 35,000 soldiers and civilians met their end. The first world 1914-1918 war was ultimately about power and territory though it never needed to have happened. WW2 1939-1945 was about Hitler trying to rule the world and rid it of those he considered undesirable. Korea was about China expanding its power and territory and influence. Viet Nam was about communism expanding its control in SE Asia though it was a disaster brought about by American leadership failure. And since then, the great Islamic war has clearly been about submitting the world to Moslem rule in one way or another. So I really must dispute your observation–it doesn’t appear supported by historic review.

  3. Absolutely fascinating thoughtools. It raises so many, dare I say it, ethical questions!

    For example, does it mean a doctor is precluded from aborting an unborn baby to save the mother’s life?

    How does the concept of a “just war” fit into this line of thinking? Isn’t the entire concept of war that of taking the lives of a group of people–some which are innocent–for the sake of another group of people?

    1. defending yourself from those that would do harm to you, your family, your nation. do not qualify as innocent. take it from a X-aviator, surgical warfare is a huge mistake, carpet bombing is much more effective and ends conflicts much sooner.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Chris-
      though people like St Augustine and much later Hugo Grotius tried to create a doctrine of ‘just war’ it is really not a valid concept. There is only one thing to do with war and that is try to win it as quickly as possible with as little cost to your side as possible. It is very immoral and unjust for my government or leadership to sacrifice my life or property or those of my compatriots in favor of saving that of the enemy in the name of some elusive and obscure ‘just war’ doctrine.

  4. We make the assumption that human life is valuable above all else. We justify taking an unborn baby’s life to protect the health of the mother. We don’t consider what God is trying to do in other people’s lives. He’s in control, let His will be done.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Almost right, Robert, if we had no choice but to take the life of the fetus in order to save the LIFE of the mother (Not merely her health) we would sadly do so.

  5. I believe that the answer that the Jewish child who has been raised understanding Gods definition of morality would say “lay down ones own life” would be the first choice.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      No really, Eli-
      in my view, that Jewish child would say rather than purchase or ride in a car eerily preprogammed to make immoral decisions, simply choose a nice big, heavy, safe, drive-yourself SUV. But you’re right–if the only way to save my life is for me to take yours, I may not do that.

  6. We hear all the time that abortion is justified if the life of the mother is at stake. Am I correct that the answer is that we should never do anything that will take the life of even one person?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Lynn-
      in the very rare circumstance in which the life of the mother is directly and genuinely imperiled by the fetus, and only one can be saved, there is a moral answer but it is terribly difficult for anyone who has ever held a helpless little baby in their arms, to accept. The answer is that if it comes to a choice, in a way, it is the fetus that is the threatening party while the mother is perceived as innocently trying to bring a baby to life. In practical terms this almost never has to happen today but if it did, or theoretically, the legal status of the fetus is a little similar to a gun wielding home invader who threatens your life. The only outcome is one survives. By virtue of being the threatening party violating a peaceful status quo, the life of the assailant is immediately terminated.

      1. Nancy Centofante

        As a physician who as answered many obstetrical emergencies I cannot think of a single instance where saving the life of the mother required aborting a viable infant. I can think of instances where an emergency cesarean saved the life of both the mother and the infant. I can also think of instances where a non-viable doomed fetus (miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy) threatened the life of the mother necessitating emergency surgery. But those surgeries were never called abortions. Dr Koop our previous Surgeon General agrees.

  7. Michael McEntire

    Hi, never heard this teaching before. My thoughts went directly to the Titantic, not enough lifeboats for everyone. How do you decide who lives and who dies. Maybe a different situations but would like to hear your thoughts on the matter.

    1. Don’t you think that laying down your own life (intentionally or not) to save another is a far different matter than choosing among others, as a judge, who will live or should die?

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Greetings Michael-
      These are dreadful things to have to contemplate and analyze but doing so helps point the way to reliable guidance on less dramatic but equally perturbing everyday type moral predicaments. What would you have done as captain of the Titanic? You might have figured ‘women & children first’ helped prevent a stampede which might have killed more. Scripture does not assign any higher inherent value to the lives of women or children over adult men. A life is a life–each one of infinite immeasurable value.
      Inadequately but sincerely

  8. In the first example, would it be Scripturally consistent that doing anything other than taking an action which would result in the destruction of another person’s life would be the advised course?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hello Jeff-
      We would be Scripturaly prohibited from owning or operating a vehicle programmed to take an innocent life or to make any calculation of relative values of life. Each human is of infinite value and two times infinity is still infinity. It is not true to say sacrifice one life to save a hundred. As an individual we may not make that calculus. A government or any authority appointed over a group of people, however, must sacrifice as many as necessary of those to whom it is not responsible to save even one life of those for which it is.

  9. So what is the answer? If the car algorithm has to choose to kill the driver of the car, the motorcyclist or the mother and children, which one does it pick? It has to pick an option. Not doing anything is not an option in your scenario.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hello Gillian
      we would not be permitted to purchase and operate a car that had been programmed to ‘choose’ a victim.

  10. Could you comment on how the decision to use atomic weapons in world war 2 fits into this discussion of trade Offs?

    1. War is not the same. We have the obligation to protect ourselves from those who would harm us, the evil doers. The above examples assumed that all involved were innocent.

      1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

        Right you are, Sir! God gives a ‘congregation’ or ‘society’ of humans the right to protect itself at the cost of the lives of others for which it is not responsible. Let us imagine you are starving…do you have any moral right to steal a loaf of bread? No, of course not. However, if an entire country is starving, may its government invade a neighboring country in order to seize food to feed its own people. I am afraid the answer is yes as hard as it is to wrap myself around it emotionally. It not only ‘may’ invade, it is morally obligated to do so. If bombing Dresden in February 1945 saved only one British or American soldier though it cost the lives of over 20,000 Germans, it was the moral thing to do.
        Perplexingly and sincerely

        1. Christopher Jones

          Rabbi Lapin, what was the scriptural basis for that statement, that a country may invade another to feed itself? My “memory bank” doesn’t seem to be serving me on this occasion.

          1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

            Dear Christopher
            not to be frivolous but where is the Scriptural basis for eating green jello, taking boating vacations or playing golf? Scripture prohibits the forbidden and makes a significant distinction between individuals and society. For instance, individuals may never murder but when society executes a murderer it is not called murder but justice by capital punishment. Similarly, theft is prohibited the individual but when a nation goes to war and gains territory including farms, fields, and factories, it is not called theft but God’s way of recycling nations.

    2. The purpose of war is to completely obliterate the other side and make surrender a more palatable option than to continue to resist. That dropping two atomic bombs saved up to a million Allied soldiers is a secondary consideration to the first. As our actions in Afghanistan and against ISIS reveal, applying “proportional force” only prolongs the horrors of war.

      1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

        So true Michael-
        and immoral demands that Israel respond to Islamic rockets “proportionately” is equally immoral.

    3. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Sure, thanks for writing. Governments have to obligation not to regard all blood as equally valuable. No individual may do away with one human in order to save a hundred others. However, a government is obligated to protect the blood of its own citizens even at the expense of others. An invasion of Japan which surely would have had to happen as it did in Europe would have cost many American lives. The government made the right decision to save American lives at the cost of those of the enemy regardless of number. There is no moral distinction between the bombings of Berlin and the destruction of Desden and those of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In one case the British were trying to save English lives and in the other the Americans were trying to save American lives and both acted entirely correctly.
      warmest wishes

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Kevin–
      Serving in the military or law enforcement (which is just another kind of military fighting an internal rather than an external enemy intent on destroying your society and civilization) is specified in Scripture. Hence military maneuvers that take lives are permitted. Governments as agents of society can, and sometimes should apply the death penalty. This is not called ‘murder’ as it would be if an individual vigilante acted similarly.
      hope this helps

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