Dear Readers

Photo by Mike Lovett

"Suppose you are the driver of a trolley car hurtling down the track at 60 miles an hour. Up ahead you see five workers standing on the track, tools in hand. You try to stop, but you can’t. The brakes don’t work. You feel desperate, because you know that if you crash into these five workers, they will all die. … Suddenly, you notice a sidetrack, off to the right. There is a worker on that track, too, but only one. You realize that you can turn the trolley car onto the sidetrack, killing the one worker, but sparing the five. What should you do?”

Most people, says Harvard professor of government Michael Sandel ’75, author of the best-seller “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” would say turning is the right choice, sacrificing one life to save five.

But is it the right choice? Sandel — in his trademark style of gradually escalating the complexity of the moral dilemma at hand — proposes an alternate scenario. Would it be equally acceptable to fatally shove an innocent bystander onto the train track to stop the trolley and save five lives? After all, he writes, in both cases if “numbers count — if it is better to save five lives than one — then why shouldn’t we apply this principle in the second case, and push?”

In our cover story, Sandel gently drills down into hypothetical examples like these while layering on more “what ifs,” compelling his audience to consider — more to the point, reconsider — their most deeply held assumptions about their moral compass and ethical values.

Of course, there are countless ways to survey one’s moral core. Former radical Kathy Power ’71, convicted in the shooting death of Boston police officer Walter Schroeder during a robbery in 1970, spent two decades as an outlaw before her conscience compelled her to turn herself in and go to prison. In Turning Points, she describes her “deepening surrender” to a sense of responsibility for the ghastly crimes she committed, and her hopeful return to a just society.

If you asked Lindsay Markel ’08 (“A Quest for Justice”) what constitutes a just society, she might show you the tattoo inked onto her wrist: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr. The tattoo is a personal symbol of what may well become Markel’s life’s work — exonerating the wrongly convicted.

As these stories attest, the Brandeis tradition of incubating ideas about justice is alive and well.

A final, bittersweet note: Managing Editor Theresa Pease is retiring after an award-winning career in writing for and editing university magazines. During her six years at Brandeis Magazine, she was a remarkable source of knowledge, good judgment and bottomless humor. Smart, exacting, curious and humble, Theresa enriched Brandeis Magazine tremendously.

Laura Gardner signature
Laura Gardner, P'12