Difficult Choice

In the fall of 1977, I took a college course called "Personal Growth and Development". It met for three hours every Wednesday morning of the semester, and at the time it sounded to me like an interesting diversion from regular coursework. It turned out to be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking classes of college for me.

I still think about one of the mental exercises which we performed in the class, which, considering it is almost 20 years later, probably means that it actually did stimulate some part of my brain. The exercise developed as follows: All of the eleven or so students in the class stood at the blackboard, and the instructor asked us to "invent a person" and to write this imaginary person's characteristics (such as gender, age, marital status, happy?, list an incident in the person's past which has had an effect on the person's personality) on the board. Then we duplicated these efforts by "inventing" a second, different person. We were then asked to read the profiles of each of the people which had been "invented" by our classmates. There was a wide variety of invented people, from young to old, criminals to good citizens - almost like a cross-section of the population might look.

The next step in the exercise was that the instructor informed us that each of our people had learned that they had kidney disease and required treatment with a dialysis machine to survive. Unfortunately, although there were 22 candidates for dialysis, there were only five machines available to treat the patients. Therefore, we students would have to devise a method by which to accept or reject each of our imaginary people for the dialysis.

I vividly remember the passion with which we students fought for our methods of selecting the dialysis patients. Some said that we should simply select the five youngest candidates. Others said the recipients should be "morally just and right", and should be able to show that they had lived their lives as "good" people. Some wished to make their decisions based on the potential relative worth of each person to the world at large.

I had reservations about each of these methods of selecting the lucky five. If we chose based solely upon age of the participants, we could be in essence killing off somebody who was about to make a scientific discovery that would end a dreaded disease. And youth alone provides no guarantee of goodness. If we based our selections on morals and "goodness" of the person, we could be excluding somebody who had previously committed a bad act, but had since then genuinely reformed. Basing our decision on whether each person would, at some time in the future, be of benefit to society, seemed just a little vague - but on the other hand, perhaps those who were saved would feel more of an obligation to "give something back", or make a worthwhile contribution.

This exercise really helped to open my mind to the opinions of others, as well as to the many ways in which one problem might be addressed and eventually solved. We each occasionally have to face an agonizing decision which will affect our lives, and we truly don't know what to do. This exercise helped equip me to understand that several outcomes can be valid, without necessarily being absolutely right or wrong.

Fortunately, this was only an exercise in a classroom, and in reality I have never been put in the position of playing God like that.

Incidentally, my proposed solution was to have a random drawing of numbers to decide who should get the dialysis. I thought this would be the most fair way to decide, because every other way was by its nature too subjective, and couldn't be fair. But I think I was the only one in the class who felt this way. I have had nearly 20 years to think about it, and I'm still not sure if there is a right way or a wrong way to have decided.