One of the greatest inventions of the 21st Century is the HDMI cable. Through that magical piece of wire and technology I can take an image from my laptop and put it on a big television screen. This comes in handy when watching the Wildcats on the Saint Ignatius Broadcasting Network (SIBN), as I was doing on Saturday evening. The varsity football team was in a real battle against the Archbishop Hoban Knights and it came down to one last play to determine the winner.
I called to my wife Ann in the kitchen that Hoban had a field goal attempt that would either end the game or send it into overtime, depending on whether the kick was between the uprights or not. I did not contemplate any better outcome for the Wildcats than the hope of winning the game in overtime. My vision was blurred by what philosophers like to call a false dichotomy - a situation in which only two options are entertained while the possibility of other options, just as real as the first two, are unknown or ignored.
Woody Hayes, legendary Ohio State football coach, used to say that when you pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad - the two bad things being an incomplete pass and an interception. Well, when a field goal is attempted there also seems to be three things that can happen, and that third one determined the ending of Saturday night’s contest.
The combined effort of Griffin Taliak ’22 and Franklin Pike ’22 produced what Danny Gibel ’22 has dubbed a “kick six” in his article on ignatiuswildcats.com
. Taliak blocked the kick into the hands of Pike and his 65-yard run with no time left on the clock gave the Wildcats one of the most incredible victories in their long and storied history.
I couldn’t help but think about the philosophical and theological application of this joyous event. It reminded me of the limitations of the use of “case studies” when looking at issues of ethical difficulty. It is quite common to give students hard moral cases wherein they must determine what the proper course of action should be. One of the most famous is the Trolley Problem created by moral philosopher Philippa Foot (who was the granddaughter of President Grover Cleveland) and made quite famous on an episode of The Good Place
The Trolley Problem makes the morality student choose between killing five people and killing one person when the brakes of the trolley are not functioning and the trolley is barreling ahead at full speed: stay the course and five people die, turn onto another track and one person dies. So, people are going to die and the moral decision at hand is how many will be killed. Additional information can be added to complicate the issue (the five are planning to assasinate the president and the one is President Grover Cleveland), but the outcome of certain death - and the possibility of seeing the action as murder - is a certainty.
The irony of the Trolley Problem is that it has been used by utilitarians and consequentialists as a sort of moral mathematics - one is less than five, and so you lose one rather than five - and yet Professor Foot, the creator of the Trolley Problem, was at the forefront of the modern Virtue Ethics movement, the approach to morality that focuses on the ability of the moral agent to, through practice, become a certain type of person - the type who would do all in her or his power to save all six lives.
From the standpoint of Virtue Ethics, the problem with this case is the same as my problem when I made my announcement with 2 seconds left on the clock: it assumes a false dichotomy. There are a number of things that the trolley conductor or the passengers can do to try to avert a tragedy and those are all predicated upon what the actual circumstances of the event entail. Every situation has an innumerable number of variables, any one of which could end up saving the day. Without such variables and circumstances shows like MacGyver
- shows that depended upon unconventional ways of thinking - could never exist.
On several occasions in The Good Place
someone tells Chidi Anagonye, professor of ethics and moral philosophy, that no one likes moral philosophers and he sadly nods and says, “Yeah, I know that.” Maybe it’s because they invent things like the Trolley Problem. But maybe it’s because they turn great football victories into lessons in moral philosophy. Go Cats!