‘Everett’s informed activism on behalf of Greek independence is perhaps the first great example of American ‘engaged scholarship’, fitting for the scholar who was the first in his country to earn a PhD.’ Johanna Hanink on Edward Everett, the American classicist who became an unlikely spokesperson for Greek revolutionaries.

‘Maybe what Rodin really has in common with the creators of the Parthenon is an insatiable appetite for life.’ Jonathan Jones reviews ‘Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece’ at the British Museum.

How did the Mycenaeans cut through the especially tough type of rock they used in their palaces and tombs? Read about the homemade pendulum saw that is ‘the most persuasive reconstruction of a Mycenaean sawing machine’.

‘The program is a very important and innovative educational, scientific and cultural initiative for this country.’ Greece is getting its first English undergraduate program, organized by the University of Athens and the International Hellenic University in Thessaloniki.

David Pearce: Art and diplomacy on Twitter

David D. Pearce served as U.S. ambassador to Greece from 2013 to 2016. In this guest post for Philhellenes, he explains how his work as a diplomat, his love of Greece, and his passion for painting all found expression through the medium of Twitter.

I always had the habit of drawing, but it was only about five years before getting to Greece in 2013 that I started the watercolors.

When I served as ambassador in Algeria 2008-2011, security restrictions severely limited weekend travel and outside activities. So in my free time, I began the methodical study of drawing, perspective, light, shade, and color. I also copied the works of painters I admired, especially Winslow Homer.

Painting quickly became my favorite pastime. I love the zen of it. I chose watercolor because it is a difficult medium, and I like a challenge. If you make a mistake in watercolor, you have to live with it. So you adapt. You figure out how best to turn what happened into an opportunity. Diplomacy is much the same. Things seldom go as planned. You need to be ready to adapt and find solutions that fit ever-changing situations.

When I left Algeria, I continued painting on assignment to Afghanistan as Assistant Chief of Mission 2011-2012, and then again after I arrived at my posting as Ambassador to Greece in 2013. I did very little exhibiting, and no selling, of my work, despite the urging of some friends. I did hang a few pieces in the residence. Since leaving government, I have been building a small website to show some of the watercolors. I have made a few available for sale as prints and I am considering offering up some originals soon as well.

Not long after I arrived in Greece in 2013, the public affairs counselor in Athens, Todd Pierce, pressed me to start a Twitter account. This was in line with Department of State efforts to encourage chiefs of mission to engage actively in social media messaging. Not without misgivings, I agreed. In short order, it became clear to me that growing my very modest little Twitter feed would require more flavor and content than U.S. policy pronouncements and photos of official U.S. activities. But what?

Pierce encouraged me to Tweet my watercolors. He noted this would lend the feed a much more personal tone, and felt it would have some appeal because the works reflected a deep personal interest in Greece and Greek culture. This was true enough. I had had a special affection for Greece ever since my first visit as a Classics student in 1971. I still found it hard to believe, though, that there would be much interest in my paintings.

I was wrong. The paintings became by far the most widely played aspect of the Twitter feed, more popular even than the official U.S. business – imagine that! I should not have been surprised. Greeks are justifiably proud of their history and culture, and they respond with enthusiasm when others show they share that appreciation.

“If you make a mistake in watercolor, you have to live with it. So you adapt. You figure out how best to turn what happened into an opportunity. Diplomacy is much the same.”

Naturally, my first, and favorite, subject was the Acropolis. No matter how often I went out in the city, I never got over the thrill of seeing it bulk over the capital. I thought of it as the numen, or presiding spirit, of the polis.

The painting below is a view of the Acropolis from the Kolonos Agoraios. It grew out of a springtime walk in the Agora. If you climb up to the Temple of Hephaistos you are standing on the Kolonos Agoraios, a rocky outcrop overlooking the Agora. And you are rewarded with this stunning view.

Watercolour study of the Acropolis by David Pearce
Acropolis Kolonaios [click to enlarge]

The next image is my Red Acropolis. It illustrates the earlier point about turning accidents into opportunities because it began with a mistake. Thinking I had ruined the painting, I hit the paper hard with a strong cross-stroke, annoyed at the prospect of having to throw it out. But I liked the effect, so I did it again, and again, adding more and more bright, analogous color. The result, Red Acropolis, represents for me not only the emotional fire and independence of the Greek experience, but also the cultural solidity and self-confidence that anchors it. One of my happy accidents. The Greek Post Office honored me with a special presentation print of this painting as a Greek postage stamp just before I left the country.

Watercolour study of the Acropolis by David Pearce
Red Acropolis [click to enlarge]

The trouble with painting the Acropolis is that no one image can possibly convey the different feelings that it inspires. So I did many views in many styles. This one I call the Abstract Acropolis. I first did an underpainting in watercolor and then repeated the underlying tones in slashes of oil pastel above. If you stand back from it and squint a bit, the structures of the Plaka and Hadrian’s Library begin to emerge.

Abstract watercolour study of the Acropolis by David Pearce
Abstract Acropolis [click to enlarge]

Greece is about much more than Athens, however. So, naturally, I took my sketchbook and camera with me whenever I traveled, always looking for potential paintings. I tweeted out both paintings and small sketches, some with handwritten notes on them. My first trip outside the capital was to Corinth, whose spectacular location had thrust it into the middle of events throughout Greek history. The pen and ink/watercolor piece below is of the magnificent Doric columns of the Temple of Apollo, another subject on which I did several takes.

Watercolour of the Temple of Apollo, Corinth, by David Pearce
Temple of Apollo, Corinth [click to enlarge]

One weekend, my wife and I escaped for a weekend break at Hydra, the beautiful island to which Leonard Cohen famously retreated, and where cars are still banned. In honor of this, I did this little abstract painting of donkeys waiting at the quay for a fare:


The Greek Orthodox church is, of course, omnipresent in Greece. In the winter of 2015, I got away to Meteora, which hosts the cliffhanging Monasteries in the Sky, one of the most spiritual and striking sites in entire country. That trip inspired this small pen and ink/watercolor sketch of Father Superior Isidros, who was kind enough to escort us around Varlaam Monastery:

Meteora, Abbot Isidros [click to enlarge]

Prospective visitors to Greece tend to think first of the islands, but if one tries other, less-traveled ways there are many treasures of natural beauty to be found in every corner. One of my favorite paintings is of this glassy lake in central Thessaly, at the foot of mist-shrouded mountains. Every time I look at it, I remember well the cool tranquility of the damp winter morning when I visited:

Watercolour study of a winter lake in Thessaly by David Pearce
Winter Lake Thessaly [click to enlarge]

As a lifelong Classics buff, I was thrilled to be living for an extended period in the land about which I had read so much for so long. One day, while re-reading a section of the Odyssey, I decided to try to sketch a Homeric ship. There were plenty of representations of 5th Century triremes, but I hadn’t seen many of these older craft. We knew they had dark curving hulls, oars, a single mast and sail, basic rigging, and a steering oar. I found a line diagram of such a ship, and the Greek names for its basic components, in an old text of Homer in my library. As an afterthought, I sent this little sketch, done for my own edification, out as a tweet, complete with scribbled notes in English and Greek. I was astonished at how many and how quickly people picked it up and retweeted it. Who knew there were so many Classics nerds out there?

Homeric Ship [click to enlarge]

For the most part, I kept my tweets of paintings apolitical. An exception came when the refugee wave hit Greece in 2015. I could not resist putting together a few pen and ink/watercolor images aiming at capturing some of the pathos of this flow of human misery onto Greek shores. This was a time when the philotimo (φιλότιμο) of the Greek people, especially on the islands, was on vivid display. Here is one:

Watercolour of refugees by David Pearce
Refugees [click to enlarge]

Many of the watercolors I tweeted out on my official account were not paintings at all, just small notebook sketches, like these:

Color study, Acropolis:

Watercolour study of the Acropolis by David Pearce
Acropolis Color Study [click to enlarge]

Blue Acropolis:

Watercolour study of the Acropolis by David Pearce
Blue Acropolis [click to enlarge]

Landscape, Thessaly:

Watercolour of a Thessaly landscape by David Pearce
Thessaly Landscape [click to enlarge]

Meteora – The locals called the unusual rock formation you can see in the background the “Finger of God”:

Watercolour of the 'Finger of God' in Meteora by David Pearce
Meteora, ‘Finger of God’ [click to enlarge]

Fort of Palamedes, Nafplion, from Nea Tiryns:

Fort of Palamedes [click to enlarge]


Watercolour of the port of Heraklion by David Pearce
Heraklion [click to enlarge]

I feel very fortunate to have been able to live for three years in Greece. My paintings were an effort to distill a bit of the beauty I saw everywhere, and keep the memory of it with me always.

Images and text copyright © David D. Pearce, 2018. All rights reserved.

Biographical note:

David D. Pearce lived and worked in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East for ten years as a journalist, and 35 years as a diplomat, including service as U.S. ambassador to Greece (2013-2016) and Algeria (2008-2011). He attended Bowdoin College and the Ohio State University School of Journalism. Since Mr. Pearce’s departure from government service in November 2016, he and his wife have divided their time between his native Maine and their grandchildren in Southern California.

A self-taught artist, Mr. Pearce has been painting actively since 2008. He recently established a website to display his watercolors: You can follow him on Twitter at @daviddpearce.

Mezedes 14/4/18

Traveller, writer, and soldier Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011, was an almost legendary figure among philhellenes. Writing in the TLS, James Campbell describes the experience of interviewing him back in 2004. (Read Campbell’s profile of Leigh Fermor.)

Why has Greece’s government debt continued to rise (from 130% of GDP in 2009 to 180% in 2016), despite years of austerity? Economist Jeromin Zettelmeyer explains.

Ethiopia and Greece have ties dating back to ancient times. Alice McCool writes about the small community of Ethio-Greeks keeping the cultural links alive today.

Koryvantes is a group of Greek history enthusiasts who research and reenact ancient Hellenic fighting skills and culture. Read about them and their work.

The Greek government has dropped a bill that would have required pet owners to neuter their animals or pay a levy.

Greece is currently home to many thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East. UNHCR’s Leo Dobbs tells the story of two of them, Ismain and Walid, who became friends while fishing together at the port of Heraklion, Crete.


With apologies to John Lennon

Imagine there’re no qualia
It’s easy if you try
No feel or what-its-likeness
Just plain old cog sci

Imagine all the zombies
Being just like us

Imagine there’re no inverts
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing for Mary to learn
And no hard problem, too

Imagine all the people
Being illusionist

You may say I’m a quiner
But there’s nothing wrong with that
I hope someday you’ll join us
And learn what it’s like to be a bat.

Nigel Gibbions: Indecipherable Crete

I first visited Crete in December 2002 for the wedding of my friends Keith and Maria, who are responsible for the Philhellenes website. I have loved the island ever since. This is a record of that first visit.

My plane lands at 5am: dark palm trees and red sky. The wedding is later today and I must rest.

about my height
picture me
inside it
peeping out

The day after, my arms ache from circle dancing. I walk to the centre of Heraklion.

The Morosini fountain in Heraklion

narrow pavement
hard to dodge
the butcher’s hare

On the way, there is a display of religious icons inside a small church.

on the church wall

A stained glass window

This Venetian Fortress (Koules) once protected the harbour.

Heraklion harbour and its Venetian fortress

In the evening, I find a place to eat in the streets opposite Lion Square.

poppy seeds
on white linen
starry night

Minoan civilisation flourished here 5000 years ago: what traces remain in the Cretan psyche?

At Knossos
pine needles
between the stones
long ago

A view of two small kiosks from above

white bird
my shadow

Back in the present, I wait for a bus back to Heraklion.

A cat on a scooter

white sheets
dry on the line

Phaestos is the other major archaeological site on the island. The palace ruins sit high above the Messara Plain.

cool breeze
in my ear
a fertile plain

Cactus leaves against a blue sky

The meaning of the mysterious disk found at the site remains unknown.

The Phaestos disk

in the ruins
I found your wings
before we married

One day, my hosts, the newlyweds, drive with me to the Lasithi Plateau.

high plain
two planes cross
high above us

An antenna against a blue sky

Another day, I head west to Chania.

a round window
full of sea

The lighthouse in Chania

Throughout my stay, I spend time at the harbour. You can walk a mile out to sea here.

View of Heraklion harbour

wind cools
my forehead

On the last day I stay at the harbour for hours…

The breakwater in Heraklion harbour

the white boat
leaves nothing
in its wake

A ship in Heraklion harbour

Weeks later, back in England, I get ready to go out:

to tie my laces
cretan dirt

Cranes in Heraklion harbour

τοῖς ἐγρηγορόσιν ἕνα καὶ κοινὸν κόσμον εἶναι, τῶν δὲ κοιμωμένων ἕκαστον εἰς ἴδιον ἀποστρέφεσθαι

The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own.

Heraclitus, Fragment 89, c. 500 BC

Nigel Gibbions was born in 1965 in Chesterfield, England. He recently completed a degree in Theoretical Physics, after working as an IT consultant for many years. He is now studying for a PhD in Polymer Physics at the University of Sheffield. In his spare time he enjoys listening to music, and writing haiku.

Sharon Blomfield: Greek kindness

A plate of loukoumades

At Christmas, the season of giving just past, my thoughts quite naturally turned to my Greek friends, both those on the island of Sifnos and those in the rest of the country and far beyond. Many travellers to that country have said that there’s something special about Greeks and the hospitality they offer, and count me in agreement on that.

At the heart of the matter, I believe, is the concept of philoxenia, the obligation in the Greek culture to treat strangers as honoured guests. This obligation is so ancient that its origins are thought to lie in the belief that, you never know, these strangers that you’ve just met could well be gods. Zeus or Hermes, perhaps, disguised as ordinary human travellers. So ingrained is philoxenia in the Greek psyche that, to my mind, it has become who they are. Innately kind, generous beyond belief, and people who live every day by the philosophy that whatever you give away to someone enriches you both.

Travellers to Greece are often astonished by the spontaneous generosity they meet, I once read in a guide book, and astonished I’ve been. I’ve received endless offers of coffee or ouzo. Wine pitchers topped up with a wink. A lime once tucked into my hand by the grocer after I’d paid for my iced teas. A basket of Sifnos eggs to cook for my breakfast the next day. A home-made goat’s cheese. Sweet treats from taverna owners to end many meals – cakes, cookies, or yogurt with fruits. Or as in the photo above, fresh-made loukoumades, drizzled with sesame, cinnamon and warm honey from the hives near the house. On occasion in more than one taverna, a meal that I’m not allowed to pay for  … well, just because. That’s the other thing with Greeks. They express their love with their food.

I have learned so much in the time I’ve been going to Sifnos, and every time that I’m there, I find my reserved Canadian heart pried open a bit farther. That is in fact, I believe, why I feel such a strong compulsion to go back and so often. If I can distill into a few words what its people have taught me, it’s this: in the list of human virtues, it’s kindness that belongs at the top. Kindness to friends and to family, of course, and equal amounts to those whose paths merely brush against ours.

Imagine, I often think and especially these days, a world that lives by philoxenia. Smiles offered freely to strangers passing by, no matter how different they look. A compliment or words of encouragement to someone you’ve just met, someone who, you never know, may need it more than you can imagine right now. An understanding that we’re all humans in this life together and that whenever and whatever we share, we’ll each come away with much more. A world awash in kindness.

The ancient Greeks can teach us still. The modern ones, too.

Sharon Blomfield is Canadian a writer and traveller. She is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, and she writes a blog about Sifnos. You can find out more about Sharon’s work on her personal website, and you can also follow Sharon on Twitter.

Marjory McGinn’s big fat Greek odyssey

Photo of Marjory McGinn with her dog

Marjory and Wallace

Marjory McGinn is a Scottish-born journalist and author, who has had a long connection with Greece, starting with a youthful work/travel year in Athens in the seventies. More recently, in 2010, she set off on a mid-life odyssey to the southern Peloponnese with her partner Jim and their crazy Jack Russell dog, Wallace. What was planned as a year’s adventure turned into four, living first on a hillside village in the Mani, and later in the Messinian peninsula. The adventure inspired her three travel memoirs, starting with Things Can Only Get Feta. She also writes a blog with a Greek theme and can be found on Twitter.

As a taster of her writing about Greece, Marjory has kindly allowed Philhellenes to reprint the following piece, which first appeared on her own blog. Writing after the controversial July 2015 Greek referendum on the EU’s proposed bailout terms, which caused another fiscal upheaval in Greece, Marjory suggests that the EU’s handling of the crisis has displayed a lack of understanding of Greek culture and history.

Why the EU must embrace the Zorba philosophy

Marjory McGinn

Anthony Quinn as Zorba, with Alan Bates, dancing the sirtaki in the 1964 movie

Anthony Quinn as Zorba, with Alan Bates, dancing the sirtaki in the 1964 movie

THE events of the last few weeks, as Greece has fought for a new bailout deal, have left us all in shock. They have shown us how oppressive and vindictive the EU can be and, in contrast, how spirited and stoical the Greeks are when under attack and fighting for their lives.

I don’t want to add any more to the voluminous public discussions. Greater minds than mine have debated all the political/economic issues of the crisis. As someone who loves Greece, I can only pray there will be a good outcome for the country, despite more austerity piling up against it.

What I have gathered from watching recent events unfold – the June referendum and then EU leaders, particularly Germany, acting like schoolyard bullies – is this: most Europeans don’t really understand Greeks, or their culture. It’s as if few of them have ever been to Greece.

What EU leaders have tried to do is shoehorn the Greek character into a northern European template. It won’t go; it never will go. It’s ham-fisted and almost laughable. Greeks have a different story, a different history and cultural influences. Greece is still the least European country in Europe, still leaning gently towards its old Levantine influences, which makes it the exotic, appealing, often chaotic and, sometimes, maddeningly different place that it is. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Greeks will never be cool-headed, flinty, northern European clock-watchers, which is why generations of foreigners have flocked to Greece for respite. Apart from its physical beauty, Greece still has the human touch, which is something that has been lost in many parts of Europe, and the UK as well, to a degree.

Greeks have not been blameless in the way they have handled their economy, but I believe that it’s basically because they are different from their northern partners, their character has come in for a battering. They have been labelled as lazy, work-shy and corrupt, and these clichés have been echoed unfairly throughout much of the international media.

There is corruption, of course, as there is in every country, and there are complex reasons for it, but I believe that due to a weaker and not very independent media, the corruption and excesses of past governments have not been exposed as they might have been in western countries. Only now are we seeing more transparency in Greece, and the internet and social media has helped to expose wrongdoing where some of the press has not.

We forget that Greece has only recently emerged from a devastating series of occupations and political upheavals: 400 years of Turkish occupation; the punitive German occupation of the Second World War and the Greek civil war it spawned, and a disastrous military takeover in 1967 with a regime that lasted until 1974.

Greeks are bred tough like Foteini, a ‘traditional woman’ from the Mani

Greeks are bred tough like Foteini, a ‘traditional woman’ from the Mani

Four decades of relative calm since the 1970s is but a drop in the ocean for a country to re-invent itself. Until recent weeks, at least, the economic crisis was just another upheaval that Greeks have had to cope with.

During my time in Greece, I have found Greeks are among the hardest working people in Europe. In the last five years I met countless people, especially in the restaurant trade, who work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week from May to October and in many areas like the Peloponnese will then do a long olive harvest in the winter.

Foteini, one of my farming friends in the Mani, who features prominently in both my books, is an unforgettable character and the toughest woman (a pensioner!) I’ve ever met anywhere. She harvests olives from her 200 trees, alone, every year, without fail, and rears a few goats to supplement her paltry farmer’s pension of 300 euros a month, which has been cut back since 2011. No pensioner in the UK would live like Foteini.

Not only have the Eurocrats tried to reinvent the Greek personality but they have also asked for the impossible, for a country to change its system overnight.

Andreas, one of our Greek friends in the Mani, who I wrote about in my second memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is, put it this way during a discussion about the crisis in 2012, and I quote from the book (chapter 20): “The Troika moans at us… they say we don’t make changes fast enough in the government, and with taxes… but they want us to change centuries of customs and business in a few months. We cannot do it! Impossible!”

The recent events have proved him right. Impossible, and heartbreaking!

A favourite old friend, Artemios, from Santorini typifies the Greek character: generous, maverick and an expert at skinning prickly pears

A favourite old friend, Artemios, from Santorini typifies the Greek character: generous, maverick and an expert at skinning prickly pears

After a lifetime of visiting Greece and after four years living in the southern Peloponnese, most recently Koroni, in Messinia, I do not recognise many of the criticisms and cliches levelled at the Greeks. And nor do I feel they deserve the excruciating contempt and hatred that has been slung at them during the crisis.

Perhaps the main fault of ordinary Greeks (and not the dynastic elites or the shipping magnates) is not just making a mess of their fiscal spreadsheets, but in not putting money first in the way that other societies in the west do. In my opinion, this is a country that has put life to the fore, and people, with a belief in leventia (generosity of heart), parea (company), kefi (high spirits) filotimo (sense of honour).

I have found Greeks to be the kindest people I have ever met. When we lived in Koroni for a year, we befriended a couple who had a small holding (with a few goats and chickens) near to where we lived. Tasos and Eleni are warm-hearted and interesting people, whom we saw regularly and became fond of, along with their lovely family.

One day, after their long olive harvest, they arrived at our house with a big basket full of gifts from their farm: olive oil, olives, capers, goat cheese, herbs, and a bottle of their homemade wine. They simply wanted to show us hospitality, filoxenia, and make our stay more pleasant. We were overwhelmed by this gesture of friendship. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this in Greece. Whether Greeks are in crisis or not, they never lose this generosity, or their indomitable spirit. The Zorba factor.

I believe it’s not Greeks who need to change radically, it’s the ‘other’ Europeans. They need to thaw and become more like the Greeks; get in touch with their inner Zorba. Perhaps then they’ll understand Greeks a bit better, offer a more reasonable fiscal blueprint for the future. And create a more compassionate EU.

As Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, wrote: “A man needs a little madness in his life!”

The Eurocrats need to kick off their shoes, find a beach and dance on it. Opa!

© Marjory McGinn 2015

The front cover of one of Marjory's books about Greece

One of Marjory’s three books about Greece

For details of Marjory’s books about Greece, see her Amazon webpage.

John Kittmer’s thirty great things about Greece

Photo of John Kittmer

John Kittmer is a former British diplomat, who served as Ambassador to Greece from January 2013 to to December 2016. A passionate philhellene, John marked the end of his term of office with a series of tweets celebrating thirty great things about Greece, and he has kindly given me permission to reproduce them here. (Please note that it may take a minute or two for the images to load.)

Read John’s blog and follow John on Twitter.

Why ‘philhellenes’? A note on terminology

The term ‘philhellenes’, which been adopted to characterize this site and its contributors, is used here in its literal (and ancient) sense for lovers of Greece and Greek culture. The aim is not to align the site closely with the aims and values of nineteenth-century philhellenism, a movement which divides opinion. Though Western philhellenes certainly cared passionately about Greece and played an important role in the fight for Greek independence, it can be argued that they espoused a highly selective view of Greece that ignored large tracts of Greek history and culture (in particular, the influence of Orthodox Christianity), and some Greeks regard philhellenism as a burden rather than a blessing (see for example, Nikos Dimou’s book The Misfortune to be Greek). There are complex historical and political debates here, on which I do not wish to take sides.

Why then do I use the term ‘philhellenes’? There are two reasons. First, I needed some term, and Greek friends expressed a slight preference for this one over the alternative Latin-Greek hybrid ‘Grecophile’. Second, and more importantly, there are aspects of nineteenth-century philhellenism that the site does seek to evoke — love of Greece and Greek culture, of course, but also solidarity with the Greek people in a time of struggle. Today, as in the 1820s, the Greek people face a fight to define their identity, establish their place in Europe, and create a prosperous future for their children. And now, as then, those who love Greece will want to rally to the cause. A new philhelleneism is needed, clear-eyed, inclusive, and progressive, but just as passionate in spirit as its predecessor. I hope that this site may do something, in its small way, to help create such a movement.

The evil trolley problem

On Tuesday I posted a question on Twitter (prompted by a remark by @bowmanthebard). The question involved a version of the trolley problem, in which one has to choose between letting die and actively killing, but with the twist that the motive for choosing the active option is not to minimize loss of life (in this version it might actually increase it) but to preserve a life especially dear to one.

As the question generated some interest, I thought I would set out the thought experiment in more detail here. Another Twitter user @gjfitzgerald described my question as evil, since there is no way to answer it without guilt, so I call it The Evil Trolley Problem (not a perfect name, I admit, since it’s ambiguous). I’m not an ethicist, and I don’t know if this particular scenario has been previously discussed in the literature (if it has, I’d be grateful for references), though I’m sure the underlying issues have.

Here is the problem:

You are walking by the railway line, where a group of local children are playing. Suddenly, there is a shout and you see that a runway trolley is thundering down the track. You run to warn the children and see that one child is trapped on the line. With horror you realize that it is your own child. The trolley will certainly kill your child if you do not act. Luckily, you are close to the points, and by operating a manual lever you can divert the trolley onto another track. But as you grasp the lever, you notice that another child, not known to you, is trapped on the other track. If you pull the lever, the trolley will certainly kill them.

What would you do? There are only seconds left and there is no other option. Would you sacrifice an unknown child to save your own? If you would switch the trolley, would do the same if it it would result in more deaths? What if there were two children trapped on the other line or if there were a school bus stalled there? How many children would you sacrifice to save your own child?

The scenario is of interest because what most of us would do in the imagined situation is in contrast to what moral theory tells us we should do. I suspect that most of us would switch the trolley, even if it would result in many deaths. Yet I doubt if there are many moral theories that would dictate that course, or even judge it permissible, and most legal systems would, I assume, class it as murder. This in turn raises wider questions about how far moral theory should bend to human nature, and how we can reconcile our intense preference for our kin with our ideals of altruism and egalitarianism.

Image credit