Discover more from MYLIFEplus25
No, Sweetheart, You Can’t Go in There!
The moral dilemma of choosing one life over another
There is a well-known moral quandary that has been debated for decades by philosophy and psychology students known as the Train Dilemma. There are many versions of it, but the basic storyline is as follows: you're standing on a train platform all alone and you see a train approaching and also see a small child on the tracks who will inevitably be killed by the incoming train, unless, of course, you choose to pull a lever that switches the incoming train to alternate tracks; but, on the alternate tracks there are five workmen who would be killed if you pull the lever. Inevitably someone or some (many) are going to be killed by the train, the only question is, how many?
The moral dilemma is whether to pull the lever and save the child at the life-expense of the men. Logical deduction would say that the loss of one life is better than the loss of five. But, some will argue that the child is entirely innocent and hasn't yet had the opportunity to live her life. Of course, we could argue that the men have families who depend on them. Or, that the child might grow up to be a mass-murderer, a brilliant researcher who cures cancer, or… well, just about anything.
If you have never considered this dilemma, please, don't bother asking yourself what you would do on that train platform, because a decision made outside of actual circumstances doesn't replicate in reality.
I was first confronted with this dilemma as an undergrad in business school and I argued then that the hypothetical situations like this are pointless because none of us will ever be in a perfectly cleansed situation where the only factors are the train, the empty platform, the potential victims, and the choice represented by the lever. We are more than just logical automatons, we are emotions and an infinity of other factors — biological, genetic, and the conditions that shape us — making it impossible to predict with any level of accuracy what we’ll do in any given situation.
My logic won the day in that classroom since I wasn't made to answer the question, but little did I know that life would later present me with a very similar dilemma.
Allow me to redraw the scenario: let's say, this time, that the child is nine years old and accompanied by her father; you could pull the lever and possibly save both of their lives, but it's not as simple as that because it's not a straight forward guarantee, as in the previous exercise. And, instead of pulling a lever that switches the train to alternate tracks, you would instead be switching the train to collide with the very platform where you are standing. So, the alternate victim(s) are not complete strangers — obviously, because the alternate victims are you and those who love and depend on you.
Of course, there is another caveat: there is no guarantee that you die. You could be paralyzed, slightly injured, or dead. Now you have some skin in the game, and there is yet another proviso: you only have about three seconds to answer and there is a slight chance that if you opt for pulling the lever that everyone dies.
Most of you are probably familiar with my case. Arrested in 2004 for a murder that I neither planned or committed and two years later I was given a circus-like, farce of a trial where zero investigation was performed on my behalf and where the first suspect in custody was my sole accuser who was permitted to both hide behind the Fifth Amendment and testify in absentia, denying me any form of cross-examination in direct violation of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.
That's the ten cent version of what led to my wrongful conviction, and here's something that most people don't know: on the day of the murder, moments after it took place, I found myself in an alternate version of the Train Dilemma (the second version where there’s skin in the game) and I chose to pull the lever.
Of course, in those brief moments before I made that life-altering decision I didn't know that life in prison for a murder I didn't commit was on the table as a potential consequence. For a detailed rendition of what took place that day, you're invited to listen to my podcast, episode three, but if that's too much effort, here's a brief overview:
My oldest friend lured me and another man to a vacant property under false pretenses. As I emerge from the restroom, where the most pressing thought on my mind was probably how exactly was I supposed to dry my hands, given that it was a vacant house and there were no towels in the restroom, I stepped into the room to find my oldest friend standing over the other man's body in what appeared to be a puddle of blood. He was holding a gun with a homemade silencer and looking right at me.
I would like to think that I probably said something like, “what the fuck is going on?” And that might be exactly what I said, or I may have just thought that I said it. I'm also not ashamed to say that I was frightened, I was shaking, and if my bladder hadn't just been relieved I might have emptied it on myself at that very moment.
Most of us have not stood before someone who has just killed and asked themselves if it's their turn. That's something to be thankful for, and I hope that you never do.
As time slowed I struggled to comprehend what was happening, nor was I able to entirely follow the countless implications of the obvious legal proceedings that would inevitably follow. But then something unexpected happened that saved my life. In fact, it was so unexpected that to this day I consider it miraculous in the divine intervention sort of way.
A white Cadillac Escalade pulled into the driveway. From where we stood in the main family room, facing one another, we could see a middle-age man and presumably his daughter quickly emerging from the vehicle. Eloy spoke and made it crystal clear that he was not about to hesitate in killing again, and again, and again if that's what’s needed to be done to liberate himself from the predicament he had created. And my immediate dilemma was whether I was going to stand there and let the train kill a man and his daughter I have never met, or whether I was going to pull the lever and try to save them.
I honestly can't say whether I would have done something different had the man been alone and not accompanied by his young daughter. What I can say is that seeing her made me think of my own daughter, ending any and all conscious deliberations. If Eloy was going to stop me, he was going to have to shoot me in the back. Like I said, I pulled the lever and in seconds I was out the front door standing between them and their and their death. The little girl tried to run by me into the house but I quickly kneeled down and gently stopped her, and said, “no, sweetheart, you can't go in there.”
Her father was obviously startled that I had had the audacity to physically put my hands on his daughter to stop her from running into the house. He explained that she was familiar with a house and had come to play there on countless occasions when the previous occupants lived there. Then he mentioned that he had seen the realtor’s car in the driveway and had thought to stop to introduce himself, as he himself was a realtor. I knew that Eloy was no more than ten feet away, standing behind the slightly ajar, front door that I had left open in my rush, and that if he felt threatened by anything that was said that he wouldn't hesitate in exposing himself to put an end to the perceived threat.
The man said that he wanted to meet his colleague and I deterred him with the only lie that came to mind: now was not a good time, he's busy with my business partner. (At trial the man claimed that I had said that my wife was with the realtor, not my business partner. I feel that I could never forget the lie that I told him to save his and his daughter’s lives that day, but I also don't know why he would have a reason to to lie.)
Thankfully the man was deterred. He gave me his business card and he and his daughter retreated to their vehicle. And there I stood between them and the door hoping that Eloy wouldn't emerge, shooting as they attempted to drive away with their lives.
There I was standing on the platform at the imaginary train station oblivious to how the consequences for my decision to pull the lever were going to play out. You could say that a life sentence for a crime I didn't commit is like being paralyzed from life, or that, even more accurately, since my life was forfeit that the real consequence was death by the proxy or slowly wasting away in a concrete tomb. But let's save the dramatics for another time.
I wish I could say that I have received frequent letters of gratitude from that man and his daughter for having pulled the lever that saved their lives, but I haven't. I wish I could say that living two decades entirely removed from my own daughter hasn't been as bad as you might imagine, but I can't.
Here is what I can say: I am thankful that I didn't have longer than three seconds to decide, and that I couldn't have foreseen what that decision would cost in heartache and tears, because even though the decision has been heart wrenching and difficult to bear, I wouldn't have been able to live with myself had I chosen not to pull the lever. And I'm afraid that had I been given more time to consider, I wouldn't have pulled it.
Over the years I have frequently thought, especially on the anniversary of that fateful day (August 16), about that man and his daughter. Mostly I think about her. I never knew her name and never cared to investigate or inquire as to what her name might be. I sometimes call her Sarah, sometimes Susie, occasionally Beth — the list of names is as long as it is irrelevant. Yet, I do wonder what has become of her life. Did she play sports or find herself musically or otherwise artistically inclined? Is she successful? Is she a mother? But, I suppose the most relevant question is whether or not her life is a happy one filled with love.
I have even imagined her and my daughter intentionally meeting in a coffee shop to maybe discuss what was gained and what was lost. I think of what they might say to one another. Would there be tension, animosity, or maybe even jealousy? These questions don't have answers but I find myself asking them nonetheless.
In the moment that I stepped out of the restroom and came to the realization of what had just taken place, I desperately wanted to believe that my oldest friend hadn’t just killed someone in cold blood. There must have been a legitimate explanation for what I was seeing. Was there someone else in the house? Did I hear or maybe see someone out of the corner of my eye? I even tried to tell myself that I wasn't in any real danger. After all, he was my oldest friend and someone I had reached out to in moments of real need. But I now understand that in that moment I was in a sort of survival mode.
I simply saw the man and his daughter and I reacted. If there was a deliberation of logic where the pros and cons were balanced against one another, like in the classroom debate I had participated in years before, it must have taken place outside the confines of time and space because I was not aware of it. I simply reacted because I was afraid that whatever tragedy I had been duped into was about to claim that little girl’s life.
I probably reacted as I did because, I too, was a father. I say “was” because that decision, as reactive or instinctual as it may have been, was also a defacto forfeiture of fatherhood on my part. I chose the life of another child over my own, not consciously, of course, but nevertheless that was the outcome.
Suddenly we wouldn't be finishing the Harry Potter series together. We wouldn't be moving to New York, or traveling to see the next World Cup, or playing with dolphins in Sonora. All of those possible outcomes were suddenly forfeit because her father decided without logic or deliberation that something was right and he acted — yes, I acted.
Consequences are always preceded by the decisions we make. And the decisions we make are not always consciously made, which happens to coincide with the very point I was trying to make in that college classroom all those years ago: in real life there is no logic or deliberation; we do what feels right and hope for the best. And as for the consequences, they don't factor into it.
From what I gather my daughter has never forgiven me for having chosen another over her. She wrote me once when she was transitioning from adolescent into womanhood and said that what had most disappointed her heart, more than anything else, was that I didn't do whatever I had to do to keep my promise and come home to her. In her eyes I should have let the whole world die so I could be by her side when she most needed me. And in the moment that I read those words, I agreed.
Nevertheless, I dare to hope that life will teach her without harming her what it has so eagerly taught me: life does not always wait for our deliberations or best answers, it simply pushes us off the cliff of circumstance and based on who we are, we either get a clean dive into the water or a belly-flop onto the jagged rocks.
In hindsight it's easy to say that I could have allowed the man and his daughter to walk into the house and just maybe the distraction would have allowed me to wrestle the gun from Eloy and maybe the man would've helped. Or, I could have let the girl run by me into the house and used the momentary distraction to run for my life. There are lots of things I could have done differently, like after having spent almost three days with Eloy in his pickup truck trying to convince him to turn himself in, to then find myself in a moment of weakness where I agreed that he should spend one last night with his pregnant wife — a night that I later learned was used to hatch a plan for how to save themselves at my expense.
There is no point in debating what we could've done differently, because different doesn't exist. The only thing that exists are what we do with the opportunities that present themselves in those fleeting moments when we are already falling towards either the water or the rocks.
And, for reasons that I don't entirely understand, the man who I was in 2004 was not about to let that little girl and her father walk into that house and potentially die. I preferred a bullet in the back to having to live with their deaths on my conscience. And my hope is that I would react in a similar manner, again and again as many times as life places me in that predicament.
As I said, I often wonder what has become of that little girl’s life. She would now be in her late twenties or early thirties. Maybe she saves lives as a doctor. Or she could be a climate activist or maybe a counselor who works with survivors. Maybe she's a soldier, a schoolteacher, or a sailor. She could be anything, really, even something less than ideal.
A friend who is familiar with these events recently asked me how I would feel about my decision if I now learned that she became a lot lizard at a truck stop. I admit, I didn't even know what the term lot lizard meant. He explained it to me, and after some silent deliberation on the matter I decided that who she becomes isn't as important as the fact that she was given the opportunity to choose. After all, if life has shown me anything at all it has shown me that the most beautiful moments aren't created with careful planning or anticipated outcomes — they just happen, and we have to enjoy them for as long as they do happen because beauty, in all its miraculous and wonderful forms, is brief by nature.
So, in case you were wondering, I stand by my decision to pull the lever on that platform and save that man and his daughter. And if one day my own daughter should meet his daughter, my only hope from that encounter is that somehow my daughter finds it within herself to be kind. And that in her kindness she comes away knowing in her heart that her dad didn't intentionally choose another child over her, he simply did what he knew was right and the end outcome has simply not yet been determined. Because there is still hope that he gets to her in time to once again be her dad.