Thursday, March 17, 2011

Leadout Men

On April 27, 1986 the reactor in Chernobyl was in the midst of a meltdown and was about to release a massive steam explosion that would have tossed 20,000 metric tons of radioactive steam into the atmosphere. To prevent this, sluice gates needed to be opened, but they were submerged in lethally radioactive coolant water. Engineers Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov, along with Boris Baranov whose job was to hold a submergable light, entered the water in diving suits and succeeded in opening the sluices and preventing the explosion. The three suffered from severe radiation poisoning and two later died. Their heroism saved thousands of lives.

In Fukushima, Japan, 50 workers are engaged in a similar kind of heroism.

The few sacrifice for the many.

This makes me think about a problem philosophers like to discuss: the trolley problem. Consider two scenarios:

Scenario 1: A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?

Scenario 2: As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

In scenario 1, most people would flip the switch and save five lives, kill one person. In scenario 2, most people would not push the fat man onto the track to save the five people.

This is weird. I mean, the difference between pushing a switch and pushing a fat man over a bridge is just a mechanical difference, not a moral difference. The math is the same: kill 1, save 5.

Yet, most people feel the two scenarios are different, and require different moral choices.

Consider a third scenario, in which YOU ARE the fat man, and you face the choice of jumping onto the tracks and saving the five in the trolley.

No one would hold it against you if you didn't sacrifice your chubby self, but jumping onto the tracks would be a higher moral good--true heroism--than watching the trolley crash and burn.

Life is full of the kinds of moral ambiguities in scenario 1 and 2. It can be frustrating, sorting through these kinds of moral dilemmas.

Occassionally we are presented with the chance to throw ourselves in front of the trolley and save the lives of others, so to speak: staying up with our sick child, serving the homeless and the poor, paying attention to people no one usually hears.

America has had generations of such people--leadout men faced with the choice of self-sacrifice, they gave to each other and the nation. It was a clear moral choice, and they choice heroism. They are mostly dead. Many died young and many in great pain.

But what do we become when the moral choices we face don't require sacrifice--when the questions we face are of the kind presented in Scenario 1 and 2?

Do we manufacture such crises and claim they are about self sacrifice when they are actually simply about greed and fear, or maybe laziness and cowardice?

Do we come to believe fraud, legal or not, is the obligation of every corporation and enshrine the virtue of selfishness?

I'm not sure, but I am sure that these men in Japan are doing something morally better than the rest of us will ever do. This obliges us to acknowledge their sacrifice, to recognize their work for us, to say after the race, "I couldn't have done it without these badass leadout men."

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