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Hypothetical

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London, 2003

Crowley had been the one to spot him--a young man, sitting by himself in the corner of the pub, who’d just closed his dog-eared copy of the Critique of Pure Reason before starting in on his plate of chips.

“Philosophy student, twelve o’clock,” he muttered to Aziraphale, who whirled around to look, because apparently he thought subterfuge was a kind of chocolate.

“Indeed,” said Aziraphale, turning back around. “And if he’s been slogging through Kant goodness knows we’ll be a welcome distraction.”

Crowley stuck out a hand. “Loser goes to Moscow?”

“Loser goes to Moscow,” Aziraphale agreed, and they shook on it.

Crowley rose from his seat and prowled over to what he was mentally referring to as the target , because it sounded cool and it wasn’t as though anyone could overhear him. “This seat taken?” he asked, tapping the back of the opposite booth.

The boy looked up. “Ah. Oh--no, please, make yourself comfortable.”

“Thanks,” said Crowley, and grinned widely, and motioned for Aziraphale to join him.

“Hello,” Aziraphale said brightly, sliding into the seat beside Crowley. “What’s your name?”

“Um. Connor?” 

Crowley tried to keep his smirk internal. Aziraphale kept losing their bets, and Crowley strongly suspected this had less to do with humans actually being more inclined towards sin (which was, of course, what he had to say, out loud) and more to do with Aziraphale being aggressively friendly to the point where it creeped out whatever over-educated idiot they’d wagered on.

“Reading Kant, are you, Connor?” Aziraphale was asking.

Connor nodded. “Yeah, it’s, uh, it’s for school.”

“And how do you like it?”

“Not much,” Connor said. “I mean, the ideas are all right, but the writing’s a damn slog. Sorry,” he added, having apparently pegged Aziraphale as the sort of person who disapproved of swearing.

“So you’re not much for Kant,” Crowley said, “anything you like better?” Please say Nietzsche, please say Nietzsche, it gets so easy once they say Nietzsche—

Connor’s face lit up. “Oh, yeah, we’ve just had this brilliant lesson on utilitarian versus deontological ethics. The trolley problem.”

“Pardon?” Aziraphale asked. 

“Oh, man,” Connor said, with the eagerness particular to young men who have just become acquainted with a new concept and have found an audience for it, “it’s so smart. So. Okay. There’s a trolley going down a track, and up ahead there’s five people tied to the rails. If the trolley continues, it’ll hit and kill those five people. But, there’s a lever, and if you pull the lever the trolley goes off onto a side track, where only one person is tied to the rails. So the question is—do you pull the lever?”

Crowley glanced sidelong at Aziraphale and was relieved to see that he looked just as baffled as Crowley felt.

“Sorry,” Aziraphale said, “um, do I—”

“Pull the lever,” Connor repeated. “Because if you don’t, those five people will die, and if you do, only one person will—but he’ll be dying as a result of your action, not your inaction. So. What do you do?”

Aziraphale thought for a moment. “Well,” he said, “where am I, in this situation? Because it seems as though something’s gone terribly wrong, if the trolley can’t stop, and there’s no failsafe brake, or operator—is there a trolley operator?”

“Um,” said Connor. “I don’t know? I don’t think it—”

“So,” Aziraphale said, with growing confidence, “I would contact the local government, or whomever was in charge of the transit authority, and tell them that they had better sort out their trolley situation, because it’s clearly very dangerous.”

“But that—” Connor began. “That’s not—There’s no transit authority, it’s just—”

“No transit authority?” Aziraphale asked, horrified. “There’s just trolleys roaming the tracks all willy-nilly? Why, it’s worse than I’d thought.”

“But the five people,” Connor insisted. He turned to Crowley. “Do you pull the lever?”

“Who tied ‘em to the tracks?” Crowley asked.

Connor’s face fell. “That’s not part of the—”

“Cause,” Crowley said, “to my mind, bigger issue you’ve got is that someone’s going around tying people to trolley tracks. So what I’d want to do is find out who that asshole is, and then probably tie him to the tracks, see how he likes it.”

“But none of this really matters!” Connor insisted. “It’s just a, a hypothetical situation! There’s no transit authority and there’s no one tying people to tracks, because this world doesn’t exist outside of the moral dilemma! You’re missing the entire point!”

Aziraphale blinked slowly. “Don’t you see, my dear boy, that there is no morality without context? Without established rules?

Connor groaned. “That sounds good, I guess, but in the end you’re just, I don’t know, you’re just using loopholes and logic to get out of actually confronting the issue!”

“Oh no,” Crowley said sarcastically. “Can’t have logic in a philosophical discussion.”

Connor stood up, grabbing the volume of Kant. “You are both,” he informed them, “tremendous moral cowards.”

“Thanks ever so,” said Crowley.

Connor glared at him and stalked off.

“He’s left his chips,” Aziraphale said sadly.

“D’you think we are moral cowards?” Crowley asked.

“Well, I should certainly hope I’m not,” Aziraphale said. “And I hardly thought you wanted to be moral.”

“Yeah, well,” Crowley said. “Cowards, though. Don’t much fancy being a coward.”

“It’s a silly question,” Aziraphale said. “I mean, first of all, to you and me, a runaway trolley hardly poses an insurmountable difficulty. But, even if it weren’t for that, you can’t expect people to make decisions in a vacuum, because they don’t, in reality, do they?”

“Yeah,” Crowley said, “You’re right, you’re right. Still doesn’t settle us for who’s going to Moscow, though.”

“I’ll do it,” Aziraphale said. “It’s nearly Fat Tuesday, there’ll be blini. I don’t mind.”

“All right,” said Crowley easily. 

Aziraphale sighed. “You don’t think we’re moral cowards, do you?”

“Nah,” Crowley said, more confidently than he felt. “It’s like you said. If the whole thing’s just supposed to be an allegory for, I don’t know, triage of life-saving medical care, or whatever, then there’s a thousand different variables that you’ve got to account for that’ll make things a good deal more complicated than five-people-live-one-person-dies.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale said, sounding relieved. “Yes, indeed. I won’t worry about it any more.”

“Good,” Crowley said. “I mean, it’s not worth dwelling on. Not as though we’ll ever actually be in a situation where we have to decide whether to kill one person to save many.”

Aziraphale laughed. “No,” he said comfortably, “I expect we won’t.”