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The Trolley Problem and the Problem of Moral Progress: The Case of Pontius Pilate

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Readers of Uncommon Descent may find the following new piece of mine at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion & Ethics site of interest. It mixes ethics, theology and science fiction in a way that highlights utilitarianism’s roots in intelligent design thinking.

12 Replies to “The Trolley Problem and the Problem of Moral Progress: The Case of Pontius Pilate

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    John 11:49-53
    49 But a certain one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, 50 nor do ye take account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. 51 Now this he said not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation; 52 and not for the nation only, but that he might also gather together into one the children of God that are scattered abroad. 53 So from that day forth they took counsel that they might put him to death.

    Caiaphas the High Priest
    Excerpt: John remarks that the words of Caiaphas were prophetic; they had a higher meaning than he realized. The suggestion to sacrifice Jesus to save the nation expressed the mystery of God’s plan of salvation for all men through Christ’s death.,,,
    Caiaphas is no doubt that same “high priest” mentioned in Acts 5:17-21, 27; 7:1; 9:1 as the bitter persecutor of the Christians.
    http://www.bible-history.com/H.....iaphas.htm

    The Problem of Evil by Benjamin D. Wiker – April 2009
    Excerpt: We still want to cry, Job-like, to those inscrutable depths, “Who are you to orchestrate everything around us puny and pitiable creatures, leaving us shuddering in the darkness, ignorant, blasted, and buffeted? It‘s all well and good to say, ‘Trust me! It‘ll all be made right in the end,‘ while you float unscathed above it all. Grinding poverty, hunger, thirst, frustration, rejection, toil, death of our loved ones, blood-sweating anxiety, excruciating pain, humiliation, torture, and finally a twisted and miserable annihilation — that‘s the meal we‘re served! You‘d sing a different tune if you were one of us and got a taste of your own medicine.”
    What could we say against these depths if the answer we received was not an argument but an incarnation, a full and free submission by God to the very evils about which we complain? This submission would be a kind of token, a sign that evil is very real indeed, bringing the incarnate God blood-sweating anxiety, excruciating pain, humiliation, torture, and finally a twisted and miserable annihilation on the cross. As real as such evil is, however, the resurrection reveals that it is somehow mysteriously comprehended within the divine plan.
    With the Incarnation, the reality of evil is absorbed into the deity, not dissolved into thin air, because God freely tastes the bitterness of the medicine as wounded healer, not distant doctor. Further, given the drastic nature of this solution, we begin to recognize that God takes the problem of evil more seriously than we could ever have taken it ourselves. ,,,
    http://www.crisismagazine.com/.....em-of-evil

    Of note: the problem of pain/evil, and how we react to tragedy in our lives, was almost central to Dr. Neal’s following talk on her near death experience.
    At around the 15:00 – 17:00 minute mark of the following video, Dr. Neal spoke about how she, when in the presence of God, and from being able to see things from that much higher “omniscient’ perspective, finally understood why God allows evil in the world (i.e. she finally ‘got it’) and understood how our limited perspective on ‘evil’ severely clouds our judgments and our reactions to those tragedies in our lives. (The take home message is to trust in God no matter what)

    Dr. Mary Neal’s Near-Death Experience – (Life review portion starts at the 13:00 minute mark) – video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHXW1erHMtg

    Also of note to the ‘problem of pain/evil’, both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day and shared many strange similarities in their lives,

    “Both men lost their mothers in early childhood, both suffered depression and both struggled with religious questions. The two also had poor relations with their fathers and each lost a child in early childbirth. Lincoln and Darwin both share “late bloomers” disease: Neither found real success until their middle years — Darwin published The Origin of the Species at 50 and Lincoln was elected President one year later.”
    http://www.tressugar.com/Linco.....nk-1757730

    ,,,but the one common thing they shared that separated the two men drastically was the way they chose to handle the evil that happened in their lives. Darwin, though drifting away from God for a long while, was permanently driven away from God because of what he perceived to be the ‘unjust’ death of his daughter,,

    “The death of his daughter was a significant event in Darwin’s life, and certainly consolidated his belief that a bad world is incompatible with a good God.”
    http://askjohnmackay.com/quest.....ristianity

    (In fact, Origin of Species, instead of relying on scientific evidence, relies heavily on faulty Theodicy, (particularly ‘the argument from imperfection and evil), to try to make the case for evolution).

    Charles Darwin, Theologian: Major New Article on Darwin’s Use of Theology in the Origin of Species – May 6, 2011
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....46391.html

    Whereas Lincoln, on the other hand, was driven from his mild skepticism towards God into a deep reliance upon God because of the death of his son.

    Abraham Lincoln’s Path to Divine Providence
    Excerpt: In 1862, when Lincoln was 53 years old, his 11-year-old son Willie died. Lincoln’s wife “tried to deal with her grief by searching out New Age mediums.” Lincoln turned to Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. Several long talks led to what Gurley described as “a conversion to Christ.” Lincoln confided that he was “driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I have nowhere else to go.”
    Similarly, the horrors of the dead and wounded soldiers assaulted him daily. There were fifty hospitals for the wounded in Washington. The rotunda of the Capitol held 2,000 cots for wounded soldiers. Typically, fifty soldiers a day died in these temporary hospitals. All of this drove Lincoln deeper into the providence of God. “We cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it.”
    His most famous statement about the providence of God in relation to the Civil War was his Second Inaugural Address, given a month before he was assassinated. It is remarkable for not making God a simple supporter for the Union or Confederate cause. He has his own purposes and does not excuse sin on either side.
    “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away…. Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid with another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
    http://www.christianity.com/th.....99728.html

    I like the following attitude from a cancer survivor in regards to the evil and suffering that happened in his life:

    “We are His masterpiece. The greatest creation he has ever made. See what God has to offer you. See what He can do and you will be amazed. When something hits you hard, don’t put that blame on God put that weight on God. Say, “God, take that weight off me.” And He will and He will carry you through the shadow of death, because He wants you to come out on the other side.”
    – Mark Herzlich – The Linebacker Who Couldn’t Be Stopped by Cancer – video
    http://www.cbn.com/tv/3775240000001

    Verse and Music:

    Luke 23:39-43
    One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
    But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
    Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
    Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    NEED YOU NOW (How Many Times) by Plumb (LIVE) – music
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGIumjD6I3M

    I’m Not Ashamed Trailer
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1Fzxbv1f6E

    “In 1998 she (Rachel Joy Scott) drew a collage of images that included a rose growing up out of a columbine, with several dark drops spiralling it.,,,
    On the morning of the shootings, she doodled a reprise of the picture: a pair of eyes crying 13 teardrops onto that same rose – the same number of victims the shooters would kill during the massacre just hours later.”
    http://www.acolumbinesite.com/.....eyes99.jpg
    http://www.acolumbinesite.com/victim/rachel.html

  3. 3
    EvilSnack says:

    The Problem of Evil is solved by remembering a few simple truths:

    * If the innocent did not suffer from evil, it would be impossible for us to know that it is evil;
    * If the world were perfect, it would be impossible for us to love God;
    * To not love God is worse than any alternative in which God is loved; and
    * The redeemed glorify God more than the innocent.

  4. 4
    DennisM says:

    I don’t think I’m strictly utilitarian, but the minimal specifications in the Trolley Problem lead me to no other decision than to pull the lever and move the trolley so it kills only one person, not many. Not to decide, is to decide, so I cannot avoid responsibility for the resulting death or deaths. But if we start adding details about relative guilt or innocence in the different victims’ characters, we quickly lose the ability to make a utilitarian calculation.

    There is an overlooked assumption in the situation with Pontius Pilate. It is that Jesus’ death and resurrection would have been avoided had Pilate set him free. Therefore Pilate had to condemn Jesus, otherwise God’s entire plan for saving humanity would have collapsed.

    What if God’s plan was not that specific?

    St John recorded an interesting comment by Jesus in John 10:18, “No one takes [My life] from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” Thinking of this statement along with Jesus’ repeated references to the expected hour when he would offer his life leads to the another idea. What if Jesus’ intention was to lay down his life at an appointed time, and the abuse and torture he suffered through the trials and crucifixion were attempts to discourage him from that appointment? Free will for Pilate is retained. His decision has powerful consequences for himself, but nothing he does derails God’s plan.

    Pilate indeed made “a mistake of world-historic proportions”. He could have insisted on protecting an innocent man (as he was warned by his wife). He may still have been outmaneuvered and overridden by the hostile priests and their supporters. He may have lost his career and his own life, but he would have been known and honored in history for his integrity. Others would have continued the persecution of Jesus, even to his being crucified between thieves, but Pilate would not have been guilty for his part.

    It’s as if Pilate chose to let the trolley kill an innocent bystander to save a crowd of thieves. And had he refused instead, someone else would have volunteered to pull the lever.

  5. 5
    StephenB says:

    Pilate’s problem was less about a lack of knowledge and more about a lack of moral courage. Judging from the sequence of events, we can safely conclude that he wanted to be merciful until it became evident that he would have to pay a price for letting Jesus live. Several times, he tried to escape the dilemma, but in the end, he allowed his fear to overrule his conscience.

    Pilate put Jesus to death even though he knew he was doing the wrong thing; and yes, it was the wrong thing. It is always wrong to act against an informed conscience, and Pilate’s conscience was informed on this issue, which is confirmed by his desperate attempt to have it both ways—to keep Jesus alive and at the same time, scourge him to satisfy his bloodthirsty enemies.

    If he had made the right decision, Jesus would have been put to death some other way. Christianity would have been established and Christ’s role as the slaughtered lamb would have been accomplished in a different fashion. The world will always persecute the very good and the very bad among us. Only those in the middle are left alone. Prophets and saints are almost always martyred, and we can be certain that it will always go double for Jesus (and his followers). Only an objective standard of right and wrong will suffice as a moral guide.

    With regard to the trolley dilemma, there is no moral component involved since no one disagrees with the moral principle at stake, which is to save lives. What we are dealing with here is a question of prudential judgment about the best way to do that based on what we know of the individual circumstances.

    If this had happened during the civil war with a rebel at the end of one track and 5 Yankees at the end of the other, the moral correctness of the decision would depend on the political identity of the one who pulls the switch. That is just one more reason why utilitarianism is useless as a moral guide and objective morality (Virtue Ethics) is the only way to go. There is simply no way to know all the consequences of any single decision.

    It isn’t whether or not a person switches the path of the trolley that decides the morality of the act; it is the reason for doing it.

  6. 6
    Dionisio says:

    Pontius Pilate acted like most human beings would have done it, specially these days. He simply didn’t care about understanding the meaning of the situation, the significance of the words being said in that given context, and the motives of the actors in that scenario, regardless of any potential consequences. He lacked wisdom (who doesn’t?) and didn’t care about having it. Do we care?
    At the premature conclusion of his brief conversation with Jesus, Pilate said one of the most explanation-demanding statements -in the format of a question- recorded in the Scriptures: “what is truth?” But then he turned around and missed the opportunity to find the meaning of that overloaded sentence. He ran away from the most amazing discovery he could have made in his lifetime: he had been in front of the unique embodiment of Truth.
    Let us watch out lest we also fail to see it.
    Let’s not turn around and run away from that most important revelation in our lifetime.

  7. 7
    Dionisio says:

    “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

    Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

    “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.

    [John 18:37,38 (ESV)]

    Pilate’s question elicits the marvelous answer of Jesus, whose kingdom and mission are founded in the truth (1:8, 14, 17; 8:32; 14:6).

    “What is truth?”
    Truth does not matter to those who, like Pilate, are motivated by expediency. Likewise, truth does not matter to skeptics who have despaired of knowing it.

    I find no guilt in him.
    Pilate finds no crime in Jesus and is reluctant to put Jesus to death. Ironically, it is the pagan Roman governor who tries to release Jesus, while “his own” (1:11) want Him to die.

    [Reformation Study Bible provided by Ligonier Ministries]

  8. 8
    john_a_designer says:

    I don’t think using the so-called Trolley Car Dilemma can really be applied when we consider what probably happened historically. We need to understand the historical situation at the time of Jesus’ trial, which took place in 33 A.D. A careful analysis of the circumstances at the time suggests that Pilate was probably more concerned with his own personal fate than the fate of Jesus. We do have some extra-biblical data which supports that thesis.

    For example, “Pilate’s appointment to Judaea more or less coincided with the beginning of Sejanus’ appointment as Praetorian Prefect” (the head of the Praetorian Guard.) During this period Tiberius spent most of his time at his pleasure palace on “the island of Capri… leaving Sejanus,” a trusted friend and confidant, “as de facto ruler in Rome.”

    “Philo the Jew of Alexandria states that Sejanus ‘wished to make away with (our) nation’ knowing that the Jewish people were loyal to Tiberius.’ There is evidence that Sejanus, ambitious to grasp imperial power in Rome, harbored the desire for a ruler cult in honor of his deity. This, too, would have contributed to an enmity against the Jews and their monotheistic beliefs. It appears to be no coincidence that Pilate ‘decided to overturn the laws of the Jews’ at the very time the anti-Semite Sejanus was at the height of his powers in Rome.”

    In 31 A.D. Tiberius ruthlessly pre-empted a coup which he learned Sejanus had been planning. This resulted in the execution of Sejanus and his co-conspirators. While Pilate may not have been on the “short-list” some scholars have suggested that Tiberius was suspicious of him and watching him carefully.

    “After the fall of Sejanus…Tiberius wrote to his provincial governors demanding that they ‘speak comfortably to the members of our nation in the different cities…to disturb none of our established customs but even to regard them as a trust committed to their care…’. To no provincial governor would these words have been more appropriate than to the Prefect of Judaea, home of the Jewish people, even if we had no information about his actions…”

    http://paulbarnett.info/2011/0.....us-pilate/

    Again up to this point Pilate, who like Sejanus was an anti-Semite had ruled the Jews rather ruthlessly. Going forward, especially with a now much more suspicious, if not paranoid, emperor keeping tabs on his governors, he would have to be much more measured and cautious.

    The dilemma that Pilate faces in deciding Jesus’ fate, then, is really a personal and political one, not a moral or legal one. He may also have suspected that with Jesus, the Jews were trying to set him up. He certainly had no shortage of enemies. That alone might explain why he at first so stubbornly resisted their demands, after he found he had no legal reason to execute Jesus. So why did he cave in? The Apostle John (19:12-16) gives us the explanation:

    Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” 13 So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic[b] Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour.[c] He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

    Notice the veiled threat, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (Crucify or we are going to report you to Caesar.) That makes perfect sense when we understand the historical background.

    So, did Pilate face a personal and political dilemma? Definitely. However, I don’t see how the Trolley Car Dilemma plays any role here. There is no evidence that he really cared a thing about morality or justice.

  9. 9
    Silver Asiatic says:

    When Pilate saw that he could gain nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it.

  10. 10
    EvilSnack says:

    Pilate wanted to let Jesus go free because (a) he knew it was a bogus rap, (b) to keep up appearances, even the crookedest judges rule honestly when there’s nothing important at stake, and (c) he didn’t think anything important was at stake.

    When he learned that something important (his skin) was at stake, he folded like a cheap tent.

  11. 11
    jstanley01 says:

    The trolley problem is easy, as long as the people in danger are strangers. The hubris of utilitarians resides in their belief that they can know the trade-offs of a given action in such clear-cut terms, to whom Pilate ought to be a real-world case study that they cannot.

    Frame the trolley problem where the one that must be killed to save the many strangers is the child of the one who must decide. Now it’s a problem. One in which lies the wonder of the Gospel, as a matter of fact.

  12. 12
    john_a_designer says:

    jstanley01,

    Frame the trolley problem where the one that must be killed to save the many strangers is the child of the one who must decide. Now it’s a problem. One in which lies the wonder of the Gospel, as a matter of fact.

    Here is a good example of that:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S0bumfgsUU

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