The Trolley Case: A Simplistic Approach to the Doctrine of Double Effect

The Doctrine of Double Effect is when the sacrifice of something small yet precious is a side effect to save the greater good. The trolley case is the common analogy used to explain that definition. If you had a chance to save one life as opposed to five from a speeding trolley by pulling a switch that will direct the trolley to either set of victims, which direction would you choose? Most people will obviously choose to save five instead of one.

While this case works from a theoretical standpoint, it will not work in real life. There are numerous factors affecting the would-be savior. The person can be emotional unstable, which might lead that person to choose not to decide, leaving the lives of the six people in the hands of fate. That same person might be related to that one life on the tracks. This would make him biased to choose that one life over the five.

Those two factors are a few of numerous other factors that affect that individual’s decision. This is why a more practical analogy should be presented, in order to better relate to the Doctrine of Double Effect. But for now, the trolley case is good enough to understand the DDE definition.

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The Ethical Dilemma in Law & Order: SVU

For over a century, cinema has been successful based on one factor: conflicting storylines. Unless you are looking from an artistic point of view, a good, solid storyline attracts audiences emotionally. Television shows are no different and recently one show has caught my attention in a more ethical manner.

Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit is centered around a group of detectives, who solve sexually based crimes, some of them based on real-life. Some of the storylines also involve the detective’s personal lives as well. There is one episode on the show (Season 11, Episode 16), where an illegal immigrant from the Congo was a witness to a rape on the staircase of her apartment and had to testify against the rapist. She refuses at first for fear to go back to the Congo, where she herself and her 5-year old daughter were brutally raped by the rebels, killing her daughter 5 days later through injuries. She would later recount other horrible events such as the rebels forcing a gun in her vagina and shooting it, causing permanent damage in her digestive system.

The ethical dilemma comes in where immigration officers come to arrest and try to deport her back to Congo, after being promised by assistant district attorney Alexandra Cabot. Now we are faced with two groups of people, where one of them doesn’t know the Congolese woman’s situation (immigration) and the other who does, but is faced with little to no chance to keep her in the US. As an audience member, you try to put yourself in the immigration officer’s shoes, and decide whether you do your job or let her stay here, where she will be safe from the rebels in her home country, but might get fired in the process.

The episode ends with the woman testifying against the rapist and receiving an American passport. Now an American citizen, she plans on going back to her country to help other women that were in her situation, realizing that they can be heard as well.

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