A train is speeding down at a track at 100 miles an hour[1]. The driver has lost control and cannot apply the brakes. Up ahead, five innocent individuals have been tied down to the track by the villain of our story. A passer-by, James, soon realises what is about to happen, and fills with dread. But fear not, help is at hand. A short distance from James is a lever. If pulled, the lever will send the train down a second track before it reaches the five people, thereby saving their lives. But there is one catch. Further down this second track lies one individual, also stuck on the track, who will be killed if the train is redirected. What should James do? Should he pull the lever and save five, at the cost of one?

Sheilah has gone for a walk on a lovely summers day. Her chosen path takes her near an old railway line. As she approaches the line, she witnesses something unusual. Another out-of-control train[2] is speeding down the track, towards five innocent individuals who are tied to the track. These five individuals are not so fortunate: there is no alternative track to send the train down. However, there is one option…Before the train reaches the five, it must pass under a bridge. Standing on this bridge is a rather large man[3]. Curiously, Sheilah discovers a lever nearby which, if pulled, will open a trapdoor and lower this large man onto the track. Should the train hit this man, he will be killed, but the impact will be enough to stop the train and save the five lives behind him. Should Sheilah pull this lever, and sacrifice one life to save five?

Now, if you are like the thousands of people who were presented with these dilemmas in an online survey, you would have told James to pull the lever, but instructed Sheilah not to. Why?


The Western answer

 Some of the most prominent Western philosophers of today’s generation argue that this dilemma can be solved by simply following the ‘doctrine of double effect’ . In short, the doctrine sets out four criteria for a moral act: only is all four are present is the act permissible. These are:

  1. The act itself cannot be evil or wrong;
  2. You can never cause harm as a means to an end;
  3. There is no other preferable alternative way out of this dilemma; and
  4. Any harm that is caused must not be disproportionate to the benefit achieved.


Let us apply these to James and Sheilah. Both tick three of the four boxes:

  1. Pulling a lever is not inherently an evil act;
  2. The cases are artificially constructed so that there is no way out of the dilemma;
  3. The harm caused (1 life) seems to be proportionate to the benefit (saving 5 lives).


The difference, then, is as follows: for James, the death of the single individual is not a means to an end, but for Sheilah it is.

Disagree? Here is some proof: what would James’ reaction be if he diverted the train, and then, before it reached the single person, he managed to escape? James would be overjoyed! Not only did he save five lives, but the other guy escaped harm as well! Now what about Sheilah: how would she react if the large man managed to escape the track before the train arrived? She would be devastated! – now the train will continue down the track and kill five innocent people!


The Jewish answer

This so-called ‘Trolley Problem’ is only a few decades old, and as you may imagine it has caused quite a stir.

Jewish wisdom, however, has contemplated similar scenarios for thousands of years. Whilst the Jewish answer is not identical to the doctrine of double effect, it does share some of the same nuances, distinguishing between an ‘act of killing’ and an ‘act of saving’.


Finders keepers

This similarities and distinctions between Western and Jewish thought play out in countless scenarios, whether we realise it or not.

Take the seemingly benign example of hashavas aveidah (the obligation to return a lost object). Under Torah law, an object that has been lost by a Jew must be returned to him. But an object lost by a gentile need not be returned[4]. What accounts for this difference?

At first, this practice seems discriminatory. But on further reflection, there is a very different way to see it:

  • The default position: when you walk down the street and discover a lost object, you are under no obligation under secular law to pick it up. This is beyond the realm of legal responsibility, though it may fall into a looser category of ‘civic duty’. The Torah reflects this position: the default position is that you have no obligation.
  • Enhanced obligation: although under English law, we might not be obliged to pick up this object, we might choose to do so. For example, if we recognise that it belongs to our brother or sister or cousin or uncle. For family members, we are willing go further than for strangers. This is what the Torah is telling us: the default is that you are not obliged. However, for fellow Jews, to whom you should feel a special affinity, you are required to go beyond the norm and return the object to its rightful owner.


Wasn’t this supposed to be about the workplace?

 Well, yes. We got a little carried away.

We can, however, draw some important messages from this bizarre thought experiment. What should our approach be when our Jewish values conflict with Western thought? In our last post, we addressed the topic of lying, but the potential issues are much wider. Let us consider some examples:

  • Would we be comfortable representing certain clients, or working for a company which engaged in or promoted ‘immoral’ acts? What is the Torah approach to oil and gas companies which might be harming the environment? Or tobacco conglomerates which are harming their customers? Or companies that engage in animal testing, ammunition productions, or even certain political groups?
  • As we have demonstrated above, English law does not always neatly complement halachah. How do we straddle this line? It is interesting that some people have carved out a profession dealing specifically with both spheres – a halachic will writer produces a document which is binding under both halachah and secular law.
  • Of course, this applies to conduct too. Although the way people choose to speak and behave in the workplace may be more refined than in the pub, it may still fall short of what halachah expects of us. R’ Avi Weisenfield makes the following observation, which I have found to be very accurate: In certain (limited) circumstances, an individual might have a heter (permission) not to wear a kippah in the workplace. Even where this is the case, the individual is encouraged to go lifnei mishuras hadin (beyond what they are strictly required to do) and wear a kippah anyway. Why? Because, whether you intend it or not, wearing a kippah in a secular workplace turns into the  Workplace Rabbi. There are certain things your colleagues won’t say around you – or at the very least they will say ‘pardon my French’ before doing so… The very act of wearing a kippah helps raise our conduct and encourages us to stay true to our principles.


We hope, as always, that this provides some ideas to mull over.

Wishing you a very happy week.



The Working Jew



[1] This post is inspired by a book ‘Would you kill the fat man’ by David Edmonds.

[2] We make no inferences as to which rail company runs this deathly service. You can make your own guesses…

[3] In the interests of political correctness, this example has been modified by some authors to read ‘a regular sized man with a large backpack’. We have chosen to stay true to the original example…

[4] As always, the situation has been simplified and is not intended as a definitive psak.