Docile

Every time I think I’m starting to get good at teaching, the students evolve new defenses against learning. Lately a troublesome crew has discovered that, if they up and run out of the classroom and flee in separate directions, I will not pursue them. Instead, I carry on with class and write a note to their homeroom teacher detailing the incident. She assigns them penalty points or makes them write me a letter of apology. Little changes.

But I have a soft spot for contrarians. A few weeks ago, I stole a lesson about ethical dilemmas from one of my college writing professors. I started by making the students debate about the trolley problem (should you divert a train so that it kills one worker instead of five?), and then have them pick sides on increasingly perverse permutations of it, such as the famous “fat man” dilemma in which the way you can save the five is by pushing a fat man off a bridge. Usually there are three or four students in every class who say yes to all—that is, they choose the most mathy, utilitarian option, even if it requires doing something intentionally cruel. These students come up to the front of class to be crowned the kings and queens of utilitarianism. After we watch a short video explaining utilitarian philosophy, I hit this devout group with the hardest dilemma of all: The transplant problem, in which a surgeon has five patients who each need a different organ transplant.

Should the surgeon kill a healthy, young traveler to save them? Since the math is the same, a true utilitarian, given no other information, should say yes, but so far I’ve only found one student who didn’t buckle under the pressure of his moral instincts. Interestingly, that student is one of the most docile kids we have. Perhaps it’s his desire to avoid conflict that draws him to the idea of an objective, universal moral calculus. But coolheaded rationalists always creep people out, and this class’s lone wolf was no exception. After the bell, a couple of baffled peers carried on arguing with the utilitarian-in-chief as he approached the smartboard, gestured at my stock images of hospital pateients, and scrawled Xs and Os over their nonplussed expressions. He won no converts.