How Halakhah Differs from Philosophy in Solving the Trolley Problem

In the moral dilemma known to contemporary philosophers as the “trolley problem,” an out-of-control streetcar is on its way to killing five people. It can’t be stopped, and the potential victims can’t be pushed out of harm’s way; but by simply pulling a lever, the driver can divert the trolley to a different track. The catch is that a single person standing on the second track will be killed in the process. In the early 1950s, the great talmudist Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (known as the Ḥazon Ish) considered a nearly identical problem; like the vast majority of both philosophers and ordinary people, he ruled that it is better to allow one person to be killed than five. But unlike the philosophers, who tried to approach the problem through various theoretical principles (e.g., “the greatest good for the greatest number”), he reached this conclusion through analogy to similar cases given in the Talmud. Moshe Koppel explains what the trolley problem implies about the role of intuition in halakhic decision-making:

Karelitz takes as his starting point those principles already established as normative, including the ruling of the Mishnah prohibiting handing over a hostage and other principles suggested by later commentators. He suggests an intuitive difference between the hostage case and [his version of the trolley problem]; this intuition is almost universal, as recent wide-scale studies suggest. Karelitz then translates this intuition into a rule that hinges on whether the resulting deaths are a direct consequence of the contemplated act or mere collateral damage of a defensive maneuver. He does not suggest that this is the only relevant criterion—and indeed philosophers raise numerous other possible criteria that Karelitz might very well accept as relevant.

Now, if we would . . . collectively reach the same conclusion based on our intuition, what advantage is there in deferring to rabbinic analysis of the sort that Karelitz and his colleagues offer? . . . Well, we pay a heavy price for formalizing halachic intuition, but we gain a great deal as well.

First of all, one can easily construct intermediate cases—say, diverting the train saves five people but kills four bystanders or kills a relative—where most people don’t have any clear intuition. A theory of trolley decision can serve us well in such cases. More broadly, then, articulated principles of halakhah serve us when we don’t have clear intuitions on the matter at hand.

Also, rules are easier to preserve than intuitions. Thus, under traumatic conditions—persecution, exile, dispersion, the sort of things in which Jews specialize—when our collective memory is likely to fail us, clear rules are more likely to remain stable than vague intuitions, especially if the rules are committed to writing. This is the meaning of [several] talmudic stories regarding the reconstruction of halakhah during periods of upheaval.

Read more at Judaism without Apologies

More about: Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, Ethics, Halakhah, Philosophy, Religion & Holidays

What Is the Biden Administration Thinking?

In the aftermath of the rescue of four Israeli hostages on Friday, John Podhoretz observes some “clarifying moments.” The third strikes me as the most important:

Clarifying Moment #3 came with the news that the Biden administration is still calling for negotiations leading to a ceasefire after, by my count, the seventh rejection of the same by Hamas since Bibi Netanyahu’s secret offer a couple of weeks ago. Secretary of State Blinken, a man who cannot say no, including when someone suggests it would be smart for him to play high-school guitar while Ukraine burns, will be back in the region for the eighth time to urge Hamas to accept the deal. Why is this clarifying? Because it now suggests, here and for all time, that the Biden team is stupid.

Supposedly the carrot the [White House] is dangling in the region is a tripartite security deal with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Which would, of course, be a good thing. But like the stupid people they are now proving to be, they seem not to understand the very thing that led the Saudis to view Israel as a potential ally more than a decade ago: the idea that Israel means business and does what it must to survive and built itself a tech sector the Saudis want to learn from. Allowing Hamas to survive, which is implicitly part of the big American deal, will not lead to normalization. The Saudis do not want an Iranian vassal state in Palestine. Their entire foreign-policy purpose is to counter Iran. I know that. You know that. Everybody in the world knows that. Even Tony Blinken’s guitar is gently weeping at his dangling a carrot to Israel and Saudi Arabia that neither wants, needs, nor will accept.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Antony Blinken, Gaza War 2023, Joseph Biden, Saudi Arabia, U.S.-Israel relationship