What Would You Do?


It was an interesting workshop. Of course, anytime a session is scheduled for a four-hour block of time, it is one’s hope that the experience will be informative and thought provoking. The meeting room was also packed with people. I guess you could say it was standing room only. I suspect that no one was disappointed.


Hedi Cox, the presenter who in real life is the Executive Vice President and General Counsel for an adoption agency, had crafted an interesting title for the workshop. She entitled the presentation: “Shades of Grey: Ethics Lessons Learned from the Trolley Car Problem”. The trolley car problem highlights the importance of thinking clearly and making prudent judgments. Of course, the problem is compounded because people think differently and what is the obvious right answer for one person is the farthest thing away from another person’s line of reasoning. The discussion centered on how we evaluate problems and the discovery that a “one size fits all” line of reasoning is clearly never the case. Maybe that’s where the lawyers come in. Too often, everyone wants their day in court.


In the trolley car case, a pedestrian is out for a walk along the trolley tracks that weave back and forth across the city. Whether the pedestrian is a tourist or a resident of the city is unknown. It really doesn’t matter. In my mind, I equated the setting as San Francisco, but no definitive location was mentioned. At any rate, the pedestrian is walking and hears the sound of a trolley coming up from behind. As the trolley gets closer, she hears the screams of the five people on board. Obviously, they are crying out of help. The trolley is gaining speed and the brakes have gone out.


By happenstance or divine providence, the pedestrian is standing next to a sidetrack that veers into a sand pit. Within arms reach of the pedestrian is a hand lever to switch the tracks. I guess you could surmise a potentially soft landing for the passengers on board. Don’t breathe a sigh of relief too quickly. The immediate problem is that the pedestrian also sees a man standing on the tracks leading to the sand pit. There is no way to warn the man. If she pulls the hand lever to switch tracks, the five people on board the trolley will be diverted to safety. Sadly, it will also mean death for the man on the sidetracks. What do you do?


Pardon the pun, but the discussion was lively. The vast majority of the people in the room thought the only appropriate response was to pull the hand lever and divert the five people to safety. The minority opinion was equally adamant that it was unethical to do so.


Later in the discussion, reference was made to Frank Partnoy’s book entitled: “WAIT – The Art And Science of Delay”. The author suggests that decisions of all kinds are best made at the last possible moment. As an illustration: “Warren Buffett compares stock trading to being at bat, except that you don’t have to swing until there’s a fat pitch. Great athletes agree, but with shorter time horizons. They excel, not because of fast neurological responses, but because of their ability to delay as long as possible before reacting, returning a serve or grabbing a rebound. Successful CEOs, fire fighters, and military officers all know how to manage delay”. Partnoy suggests that “procrastination is often virtuous and that the ability to wait is the path to happiness”. He refutes that our gut instincts are the pathway to the best response. We do not always make smart choices in the blink of an eye.


It sounds like a book I’d enjoy reading. Partnoy asks: “What do these scenarios have in common: a professional tennis player returning a serve, a woman evaluating a first date across the table, a naval officer assessing a threat to his ship, and a comedian about to reveal a punch line?” Bottom line: “Taking control of time and slowing down our responses yields better results in almost every arena of life…even when time seems to be of the essence”.


A couple of comments were made related to the concept of “the tired brain” from the book entitled: “The Honest Truth”:

  • Depletion takes away some of our reasoning powers and with them our ability to act morally
  • What leads to depletion?
    • Resisting temptation
    • Mental exhaustion
    • Making choices all day
    • Tedious tasks


In supporting the aforementioned concept, the example was given from looking at judgments made by the same judge. If the request of the court is to revoke a person’s probation, the defendant is better served to have his case heard early in the day. Statistically, the judge makes more decisions not to revoke probation in the earlier portion of the day. Closer to lunch, I guess you could say the defendant is toast. More likely than not, probation will be revoked. Interestingly, shortly after lunch, things fare better for a do not revoke probation judgment. Toward the end of the workday, the rush hour doesn’t serve the defendant well.


I found it all thought provoking and informative. Consequently, I need to find a way to slow down and rest my brain.


All My Best!



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