Taylor: Abstract principles in real life

Would you save your sweetheart if it meant going to jail?

If a child ran across the road in front of you, you’d slam on the brakes. And you’d trust that the driver behind you had left enough space to stop without rear-ending you.

Would you do the same for a duck?

That’s the case currently before a court in Montreal. Four years ago, Emma Czornobaj, now 25, stopped her car on Highway 30 to help a family of ducks attempting to cross the road. She got out of her car to shoo them to safety.

A motorcyclist and his passenger smashed into the back of Czornobaj’s car. Both died.

Czornobaj has been charged with criminal negligence causing death.

It’s a real-life illustration of a hypothetical dilemma often posed in psychological tests of human ethics.

Suppose, the test typically suggests, that a dastardly villain has bound and gagged the beautiful heroine and lashed her across the railway tracks. A train is rolling down the tracks towards her. You can switch the train onto a siding to save the heroine. But if you do, the train will plow into a work crew instead.

Would you save the heroine? Or the work crew?

Would you run over a mother duck and her brood of waddling little ducklings? Or would you stop and risk getting rear-ended by another vehicle?

In such a situation, does anyone really apply abstract principles like “the greatest good for the greatest number”?

It seems to me that the hypothetical test overlooks two key elements in any such decision—immediacy and relationship.

Relationship. Am I in love with the beautiful heroine? Or is my brother a member of that works crew? If I know one of the potential victims personally, I will naturally give preference to saving that person.

Immediacy. If I can save the heroine now, I’ll worry about the works crew later. Perhaps the train can be flagged down. Perhaps the workers can be warned to flee. Perhaps… Perhaps…

All of us, I suspect, instinctively prefer to avoid doing immediate harm. We have a deep distaste for letting someone get hurt now, for the sake of avoiding greater harm at some indeterminate time in the future.

For Czornobaj, clearly, the ducks were right now. She could save their lives by stopping. Other occupants of the highway were a less immediate concern; they still had time to react.

I’m not trying to pre-judge the courtroom case. From a distance, I can’t judge the relative merits of legal arguments over whether Czornobaj took adequate precautions while stopping on a busy highway. Whether the motorcyclist’s speed affected his ability to stop. Or whether the driver behind is always responsible in a rear-end collision. And more.

What interests me is that a hypothetical question, typically posed as a means of getting participants to explore their own reactions, has been translated into real life.

Depending on the court’s verdict, it could result in up to 14 years imprisonment for Emma Czornobaj.

Which adds a further layer of complication to the hypothetical dilemma—would you still save the heroine if it might lead to a prison sentence?