Thought-experiment August: (4) Should you shoot Sally to save the girls?

Here’s a twist on a classic ethics thought-experiment.

You are high on a hill with a high-powered rifle and scope and you know you never miss (you are an ex-navy sniper say), even with a moving target. Down below on a train trestle you see a scene of horror unfolding. Three teenage girls you don’t know have climbed onto the trestle. To get there they must have climbed over a fence marked with ‘danger’ warnings. They have clearly broken several trespassing laws. A train is coming around a bend and it will kill all three teenagers. You know this. Furthermore, you can see the engineer is Sally, who you know is 65 years old because you read about her upcoming retirement in the local paper. You know nothing else about her. She is on the other side of the bend and will not see the teenagers until it is too late to brake. You also happen to know that Sally has an active switch that she must squeeze with her hand to keep the train from breaking and that if she is incapacitated the train automatically breaks. Should you shoot Sally to save the girls? And making it harder, Would you shoot Sally to save the girls?

What factors play into your decision to shoot or not?

If the teenagers are hit, it will be an accident they are responsible for causing. Can you murder someone to save three others from an accident they caused?

What other factors might play in your decision if you had additional information? What factors would make you take the shot? What factors would keep you from taking the shot?

What if one of the girls is your daughter?

What if Sally is your daughter?

What if Sally and one of the girls is your daughter?

What if one of the girls is Sally’s daughter (and you know that)?

(And no fair saying you shoot the girls and Sally to get rid of the dilemma).

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20 Responses to Thought-experiment August: (4) Should you shoot Sally to save the girls?

  1. How about shooting near the girls or in the air? They’ll hear it and get scared and run somewhere, most likely off the tracks.

  2. Jeremy says:

    One of the difficulties of these classic thought experiments is the certitude of consequences. In reality, our decisions never have such a direct correlation with the consequences.

    It is that disconnect that led Kant (I think – Philosophy 200 was a long time ago) to believe that we should tell the truth, even to a known murderer trying to find one of our loved ones. He said that we do not know the consequence of our actions, so we must choose the moral option.

    For example, we might lie to the Gestapo to save our Jewish uncle, but unbeknown to us the Uncle escaped out the back door, so when the Gestapo leave, they find him, whereas if we told the truth, he would have escaped.

    While Kant’s example is extreme, for most decisions, the ramifications of our actions cannot be predicted, and so we must choose what is most moral, rather than what has the best predicted outcome.

  3. Joseph Smidt says:

    Another great thought experiment.

    “What factors play into your decision to shoot or not?”

    Well, you are right, this is a spin off of a classic such thought experiment. Because of this I believe the answer is the same:

    !. I would not fault anyone one else in this situation no matter what they choose since it is a tricky question with well intentioned reasons for each decision you could make.

    2. If it were me, I would let the train hit the girls if the only way to prevent it is to kill Sally. I take this from Kant’s categorical imperatives which I do not follow religiously, but feel when in doubt following them is what is best.

    “If the teenagers are hit, it will be an accident they are responsible for causing. Can you murder someone to save three others from an accident they caused?”

    I wouldn’t say they caused the accident, but as framed, if they would have followed the rules it would have been prevented.

    “What other factors might play in your decision if you had additional information? What factors would make you take the shot? What factors would keep you from taking the shot?”

    I would take the shot if I believed Sally was intentionally not going to let go of the switch she knowing full well by doing so the girls would be saved.

    What if one of the girls is your daughter?

    Okay, maybe I would take the shot here. It understand it is a moral double standard, but like I said, I don’t follow Kant religiously.

    What if Sally is your daughter?

    I already wasn’t going to take the shot.

    What if Sally and one of the girls is your daughter?

    Which ones which daughter? 🙂

    Just kidding. I would flip a coin.

    What if one of the girls is Sally’s daughter (and you know that)?

    Wouldn’t take the shot.

    However, I have to say I actually don’t know what I would do if I was really in the situation. I think the above is correct but sometimes the “overwelming” nature of the situation takes over and you make unforeseen decisions.

  4. martyparty says:

    I tend to act on impulse so I wouldn’t stop to think to long, I’d most likely do what I felt at the moment. I would however think a lot about it after my actions and be haunted with my quick decision..its the story of my life..

  5. steveP says:

    Good responses all. It’s not clear to me that Kant works here clearly. If I were to make an universal law based on my actions, I don’t which choice would make the better law. Of course, there isn’t time to decide. And I would spend my life in guilt as martyparty said, no matter which I chose. I’ll weigh in a little later on what I would do.

  6. Allen says:

    I think I would go with Skyler and shoot near the girls to scare them off the tracks. A fast moving train needs a lot of space for stopping, so in real life, the girls after hearing my shot, would likely have time to move off the tracks before the train hit them.

    I don’t like these thought problems, because I don’t want to have to judge the value of people. My shot to kill Sally would cause the train to stop before it hit the girls, so Sally, if she let go, could safely stop the train. In real life, even without me shooting near the girls, the girls would hear the train and have time enough to clear the tracks, due to the time needed by the train to stop if I kill Sally. This is a poorly constructed thought problem, because it puts me in the position of judging the value of others, but the scenario isn’t realistic. The thought problem would have me decide about something that will never happen in real life, but real-life conditions would enter into my decision making process.

  7. steveP says:

    No fair changing the conditions of the thought experiment. If you don’t shoot Sally, the girls will die. If you do they won’t. That’s given.

  8. ujlapana says:

    Shoot near Sally so she flees the control room, braking (or breaking, apparently ;-)) the train.

    But that’s a flaw in the scenario. If we said it was a Nazi camp, and the girls were caught trying to escape but as a sick experiment I was elected to choose between the girls and an innocent old woman, and if I didn’t repsond they would all die, I think you get to the dilemma. But the assumption of certain outcomes still confounds things.

    I freely admit that if the old woman were my mother, I would save her. If both generations were mine (in my scenario), I would pick my children, as my mother would agree.

  9. FireTag says:

    I don’t think philosophy escapes evolution. (Even if the distinction between “is” and “ought to be” ought to be, it isn’t! :D)

    Lab tests mimicking this dilemma seem to indicate that some of us are wired to coldly calculate that 3 lives are worth more than one and coldly take the shot. Others are wired to provoke a strong emotional distaste to action that does active harm regardless of the cost to others of inaction.

    I think I’m the cold-blooded type. Whether I am or not is something I can’t tell until I’m actually placed in the situation. Which is an indirect way of saying I evolved to believe or not believe Kant’s categorical imperative — and he probably did, too.

  10. steveP says:

    FireTag, way to go bringing up evolution! Well done.

  11. Clark says:

    It’s interesting since this is supposed to engage with our intuitions about utilitarianism. However it seems with religion (or at least our form) there’s an added wrinkler in that the consequences are partially wrapped up in judgment. That is how would God judge us murdering someone to save the three? So even if we might make the world better, it might be wrong due to the tests of probation we are under. If that makes sense.

    BTW – if you’re that great a shot then of course shooting near the girls is the thing to do as others point out. However the whole point is to engage utilitarianism verses Kantianism so that’s a bit of a cop out.

  12. steveP says:

    Interesting question Clark. Do intentions for intuitions matter here? Judgement seems to rely on intentions as well.

  13. barcelo says:

    I think in almost all cases I wouldn’t shoot. It would take some additional info, of the extreme variety, to actually get me involved in any way, I think otherwise I would gawp my mouth open, point and then it would be over before I could do anything anyway. By extreme, I mean I would have to know Sally was extremely evil, or the girls would one day save the planet, something of that nature that would cause a sense of urgency. Otherwise I would stand their like a fool.

    If Sally was my daughter, I definitely would not shoot, and would justify that decision by saying the girls should never of been in that place.

    If one or all of the girls were my daughter I would probably panic and shoot, knowing at the time that this was the wrong thing to do, but then very quickly justifying it by claiming 3 young lives have more value than 1 life already lived, and that Sally would probably of wanted me to do it.

    But leaving the daughter issue aside, and returning to my original point – in reality I suspect I would probably do absolutely nothing.

    Have no idea what this says about me, but if the thought experiment was exactly the same but the default position of us the decision maker was soemthing like ‘there is a bomb next to sally that will kill her, but save the girls and it it is going to go off in 10 seconds, unless you hit a button to abort the bomb, knowing it would kill the three girls (who are still only there because they ignored the signs etc.) then Sally would probably die, because I wouldn’t change/get involved in that scenario either.

    Psycho-analyze that.

  14. Allen says:

    According to Steve, I can’t change the conditions of the thought problem, so I’ll have to do what I did at Westminster College as a student a few years ago — refuse to participate! I’m not interested in thought problems that create conditions that force me to judge the value of others, thought problems that won’t let me consider real-life conditions as part of my decision-making process.

  15. FireTag says:


    In the lab, shifting from actively killing Sally to “passively” killing Sally makes more people kill Sally. Evolution hasn’t equipped us on the emotional level to connect consequences to inaction as strongly as we can connect consequences to action.

  16. Heidi says:

    Let the trespassers die. They were breaking the law and had warnings. They’re asking for it. Sally doesn’t deserve to die, she’s doing her job. What? It’s sad, but the girls have to die for the consequences of their actions. So am I some kind of sicko?

  17. Heidi says:

    Besides their death will serve as a warning to others… and wouldn’t I be tried for Sally’s death, regardless? However, through my inaction I can’t be blamed.

  18. JonB says:

    I immediately broke it down into two separate questions: Do the girls deserve to die? and is it morally acceptable to end one life to save three?

    The two questions must be considered independently.

    I assume the girls didn’t fully understand the danger (unless the girls are suicidal). Ignorance and even foolishness are unfortunate qualities to possess but hardly justify a death sentence. Under regular circumstances would anyone disagree?

    Considering both questions together complicates the situation because it forces bias. If the second questions is also considered independently it becomes easier to make a choice. Do you kill Sally to save three lives? What choice would you make if you were not given any other information?

    In the end, I would take the shot (though if it was known that the girls WERE AWARE that they would likely be killed if they ignored the warnings, then I would allow them to bear the consequences of their informed decision).

  19. Rameumptom says:

    What if I just wing Sally? If I’m that good a marksman (does Navy really have marksmen?) then I can just shoot her hand, releasing her grip, and causing the braking to occur.

    Of course, I could just wing one of the girls and let them run for their lives, too….

    Then again, I could get out my HD video camera and take a Pulitzer Prize winning video (or win $10,000 on America’s Funniest Home Videos).

  20. Tatiana says:

    I would never shoot the old woman unless she were actively trying to kill the girls, and I was shooting to protect them.

    In the passive situation, where I can choose to disarm the bomb that might kill the old woman, I would not act to disarm the bomb, letting things take their course.

    Because I don’t know all ends, I can’t murder one person to save others. That’s true regardless of my relationship to any of the above.

    I might risk my own life to try to save them, if possible. But not take away someone else’s life.

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