It is not long since a friend of mine reported about an experiment they would do in their philosophy class, or rather, in their philosophy classes. At that time, his and the parallel class were dealing with the problems in regards to Utilitarianism.
The teacher then proposed in class A the following problem (see Trolley Problem)
You see a runaway trolley moving toward four tied-up people lying on the main track. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the four people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the sidetrack. You have two options:
Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the four people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?
Sidenote: The only thing you know about these people is that they're all more or less the same age. Nothing else (so there are no criminals, murders or saints to be taken into consideration).
The teacher then asked the pupils what they would do. The results were
29 would pull the lever. They argued that, on equal terms, letting one person die is worth if you can save four lives (4>1).
1 claimed, he wouldn't do anything, because he believed in destiny.
Now the teacher proposed another problem in the parallel class B, which goes as follows
One man enters a hospital - let's call him John - because he has injured his arm. Nothing dangerous, but it requires disinfection. Coincidentally, in the same hospital, four patients are about to die. They need (urgently) respectively these organs: a heart, a liver, two kidneys, and lungs.
After some tests, it turns out, that John's organs aren't only in perfect conditions for a transplant but are also compatible with the four patients mentioned previously.
Assume now that the hypothetical transplants would all succeed and that John is the only possibility for those four patients to survive. You have two options:
Let John go home after disinfection and allow the four patients to die.
Arrest John and take his organs in order to save the four patients' lives. John dies.
Sidenote: Again, the only thing you know about these people is that they're all more or less the same age. Nothing else (so there are no criminals, murders or saints to be taken into consideration).
Surprisingly, a survey revealed the following results
23 would let John go home, even if the four patients die. They argued that John should decide whether to sacrifice for the benefit of the other patients.
7 would remove John's organs - and therefore kill him - in order to save the other patients' lives. They believed that four lives are, on equal terms, more value than one.
The teacher then brought both classes together and let them compare their viewpoints regarding the respective situations. Most of them agreed with the decisions, their colleagues from the parallel class had taken until one student noticed
"We are actually dealing with the same situation. It does not matter wheter railway tracks or a hospital: this is just the context and it should not influence the final decision. The problem reduces to deciding wheter for people should live or only one, but not both of them."
Last, but not least, my question: How can you explain psychologically that, even though the students had to address the same question, the answers were dramatically different?