“Watch your thoughts, for they will become actions. Watch your actions, for they’ll become habits. Watch your habits for they will forge your character. Watch your character, for it will make your destiny.”
— Margaret Thatcher

Imagine you are the conductor of a train unable to stop. You see five innocent people tied to the track ahead of you. Before you reach the potential victims, you have the opportunity to pull a lever to route the train onto another track, where only one innocent life is bound to the track: if you do nothing, five people die. If you turn the train, one person dies. What do you do?

It’s safe to say, this is not a situation most of us will face. So why spend the time and energy focusing on questions we’ll never need to answer? Philosophy, as a process, hinges on us iterating on these questions in a particular way. It asks that we:

  1. Decide what we’re going to do
  2. Make a judgement
  3. Modify the thought experiment
  4. Retest

In an in-depth IVY learning experience, NYU lecturer Michael Schidlowsky helped IVY members understand the value and role of such thought experiments. Throughout the discussion, Michael demonstrated how thought experiments force us to consider a set of circumstances and make a judgment. By digging deeper into that judgement, we reveal to ourselves beliefs in certain core principles that are the makeup of our character.

What Is Ethics?


“Ethics will not tell you what you should or shouldn’t do any more than studying art will tell you what you should or shouldn’t paint.”

According to Michael, ethics deals with two core questions: (1) What is the best way for people to live? and; (2) What actions are right or wrong in a particular situation?

If you’re like most people, you might pull the lever on the principle that saving five lives is more valuable than killing five and saving one. Looking at it more broadly, the well-being of five families matters more than the well-being of one. In our given train example, the scene would not be pretty in the moment itself: with people screaming, emotions would surely cloud our judgement and make us more susceptible to bias. For that reason, Michael explains, it’s useful to consider such situations in order to develop a set of principles and values that clarify our actions in moments of distress, and align them with the character we want to represent to ourselves and the outside world.

Now imagine your brother was tied to one track, and five innocent lives lay straight ahead. Michael illustrates that the potential change in your judgement of the situation depends on what you value. Perhaps that shift in judgement indicates that you value family above all else. Perhaps you have additional knowledge about the situation and know your brother is close to finding a cure for cancer — saving his life over the lives of five others would have the utilitarian effect of saving millions of lives in the future.

A Utilitarian Approach: Maximizing Satisfaction

Utilitarianism is a school of thought developed by Jeremy Bentham, which contends that we should maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In utilitarianism, it’s possible to add up units of pleasure derived from various scenarios and arrive at a value for each. There is no judgement: whatever you’re feeling is what utilitarianism says should be measured. In economics, these units of pleasure are called “utils.”

John Stewart Mill, the English philosopher and political economist whose father was a direct disciple of Jeremy Bentham, was raised on the principle of utilitarianism. Mill realized that utilitarianism was subject to the inconsistency that all pleasures are not created equal, thereby making it impossible to distinguish between them.

In a ninety-page essay, Mill argues based on utilitarian principles that some pleasures are better than others. He contends that the means by which to maximize utility is to choose the option preferred by a sufficient number people, who have enough experience to know how much value an experience would bring them. Mill argues against the notion that things have intrinsic value in and of themselves, claiming instead that value can only be derived with enough empirical data.

According to Michael, everybody inherently loves ethics because it’s what makes us human. We all have internal narratives and believe in the existence of truth. We hold stories in our heads about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, who is good for us, and who is bad for us. There are facts in life and we are presented with choices; we need to impose semantics on top of those facts to create stories. We then use those stories to make decisions.

In philosophy, on the other hand, we agree to a certain set of principles — one of which dictates that we have no basis to believe that our opinion is the right one. By engaging in these philosophical discussions, we enable ourselves to move beyond the stories and biases in our heads in order to make choices that are aligned with our values.

Is Knowledge Really Power?

It is intuitive and tempting to sell ourselves on the idea that we will be ethical people by making a commitment to developing our intellect. Smarter people are better at handling decisions that would baffle those who are less intelligent, as more intelligent people have more information and reasoning skills at their disposal. The more we know and the more we understand, the better equipped we’ll be to make utility-maximizing decisions.

It turns out that’s not entirely the case, and if we want to bridge the gap between what we know and what we do, we need a structured path to practicing the insights gleaned from reason. Other forces at play, like emotions, affect the way we frame our choices and perceived preferences. In a reciprocal relationship, emotion affects both our feelings and reason.

We all navigate the world filtered by our biases. Outside the realm of our day-to-day consciousness, biases impact the way we retrieve and evaluate information, and are at the heart of societal problems involving stereotypes and inequality. However, if we can come up with a plausible principle that backs up a judgment in a series of scenarios, we can take that principle and apply it in the world in a way that counters the negative impact of our biases.

Constructing A Values-Based Belief System

Compared with older generations, millennials are less likely to subscribe to a specific religious dogma, and are more likely to create their own systems of beliefs and values. Philosophy can be a vehicle to breaking down old beliefs and establishing a new set of core principles that align more personally to an individual’s values. By practicing ethics, we gain a greater sense of awareness of when these situations and choices arise. The aggregate of those decisions form our character, and the depth of experiences in our lives.

There is value in the strength of our character. Whenever we perceive something as a moral choice, and choose to take the moral choice, that has value. We are what we repeatedly do, and our character is defined by our habits. Habits take the thought out of doing what we perceive to be right, and allow us to fall back on our core values in the face of life’s more challenging questions.

Now you’re a surgeon who works in a hospital. Five people need five different organs in order to survive. In walks a perfectly healthy young woman. As the doctor, you could kill the healthy woman, harvest her organs, and use them to save five people. What happens to the core principle that you should always save the five against the one?

Here we’re presented with a challenge to our principle that when faced with two scenarios, it’s always preferable to save five lives over one life. We might frame the choice as our action causing death to an otherwise healthy and unrelated party, whereas before we were framing the choice in the context of preventing death. There are two mindsets to approaching these kinds of philosophical questions:

  1. We can tell ourselves the principle of saving five people resolutely stands, and we’re going to keep trying to prove that point.
  2. We can recognize that a new set of circumstances challenges that core principle, and we commit to digging deeper and figuring out why.

To continue digging deeper, and to learn how to use philosophy to live a more ethical life, experience Michael’s full discussion.