The Woman and the Bridge, A Philosophical Puzzle

There once was a woman who lived in the city.

Her husband had been neglecting their marriage for a while, and she no longer recognized the man she once loved.

One fateful night, as the husband was away for business, she decided to cross over to the other side of the river, to go and meet the man who had been trying to seduce her for a while. They made passionate love. The woman gathered her things and left her lover, hoping to get some sleep before dawn.

When she reached the bridge however, a madman was blocking the passage, threatening to assault her if she tried to cross. Terrified by the deranged brute, and knowing the bridge was the only way back home, she started calling for help.

A dark figure signaled her to come over, from a flight of stairs to the bridge’s side. It was a ferryman, who offered to help the woman cross over using his small boat, the only boat around. However, he demanded an indecent sum of money for the service, far more than any cash or object of value that the woman was carrying. She tried to beg, but the ferryman was firm as an oak.

Hoping to find some help, she went back to her lover’s home, and asked him to lend her the sum. She would of course repay him as soon as the next evening. But she quickly understood that the lover was interested in nothing but sex, and didn’t even believe she would honor her debt.

Broken-hearted, she finally went to knock on the door of her suitor, a friend who also lived on that side of the river, and who had declared his love for her a few months earlier, only to be rejected. She explained the entire situation to him, and asked him to lend her the money to pay the ferryman. Furious that she only came to him out of financial distress, the suitor bluntly refused and closed his door on her.

Blinded with rage and despair, and out of options, the woman finally tried to cross the bridge in spite of the madman. He grabbed her, hit her, and pushed her over the bridge, into the freezing water, where she drowned.

A tragic tale, indeed. Now, the question is this: who is responsible for the woman’s death?

Is it the madman, who pushed her over? Is it the ferryman, who offered to save her, but only in exchange of a sum she couldn’t afford? Is it the suitor or the friend, who both refused to help in spite of their attachment to her? Is it the woman herself, for putting herself in this situation in the first place? Is it the husband, who wasn’t making her happy anymore?

Or maybe it’s all of them, to some degree? But then, to which degree? What makes one more or less responsible than the others? What’s aggravating, what’s redeeming?

Or maybe it’s none of them, because moral responsibility is just an arbitrary social construct? Maybe we can’t possibly have enough information to make judgements on anyone’s actions?

I love having these kinds of interrogations, and especially discussing them with others.

First of all, because so many layers of thinking appear, from the most ontological – What’s responsibility? What’s causality, even? – to social commentary – it’s a great platform to discuss gender biases if you try imagining the same story with a few of the characters with a different gender.

And it’s also a great puzzle because whenever you try to reach a group consensus on who’s most and least responsible, 90% of the time it ends up being plain impossible. You see people in the group vigorously defend opinions that are polar opposites, having an extraordinarily hard time figuring out why the other thinks that way.

That’s because the puzzle strips your opinions down to their most basic tenets: values. They are the axioms of your thinking, you get them from your education, and they’re very, very hard to change once you’re, say, over 25.

This exercise eventually teaches you to consider why other people have different values, and to try to understand their frame of reference. And nothing helps you more, when you’re discussing complicated political or moral issues, than understanding why the other person thinks what they think.

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