crossing a line that threatens...

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ironman2012

Senior Member
Chinese
Hi,

In a variant called “the footbridge problem,” the decision is whether to push a fat man off a footbridge, his corpulent body halting the train and thereby saving the tethered five. The death count is the same in both scenarios—one dead, five saved—yet most people would pull the switch but would not push the fat man.
Perhaps most of us would not push the fat man because it means crossing a line that threatens our own humanity too.

(This comes from slate.com Bach’s Prayer Reflections on giving on by Lisa Gornick.)

1. The antecedent of "that" is "a line", isn't it?

2. Can I understand the blue part this way: a line is one line that signifies whether our own humanity is threatened. When we don't cross the line, our own humanity is not threatened. If we cross the line, our own humanity is threatened.

Thanks in advance!
 
  • grassy

    Senior Member
    Polish
    You should understand the blue part this way:

    If, in some scenario, we can kill an innocent human being who most probably wants to go on living, this means we can also be killed. As a consequence, our humanity and thus the inviolability of our life is threatened.
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    No, the antecedent of "that" is "crossing a line". This is why "too" is used; it could be written (though not so well) "because it means crossing a line and threatening our own humanity". This seems to me a relatively rare usage, and I would usually expect "that" to refer only to "line".
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Shouldn't it be written "because it means crossing a line and crossing the line threatens our own humanity"?
    I don't know about "should", but it could be written that way, and it would be clearer. I would not be surprised if the writer did not originally intend to write the sentence they did, that they started off writing something about the nature of the line (as this construction is usually used), realised that what they actually wanted to say was about "crossing the line" so added "too" on the end to help make it easier to understand.
    Doesn't the bold part mean "because it means crossing a line and it means threatening our own humanity"?
    Yes.
     

    ironman2012

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Thank you, Uncle Jack.
    I don't know about "should",
    I just thought, in #4, because the antecedent of "that" is "crossing a line", it should be written because it means crossing a line and crossing the line threatens our own humanity, not because it means crossing a line and threatening our own humanity.

    Now I think when you said it could be written (though not so well) "because it means crossing a line and threatening our own humanity", you just paraphrased the sentence without considering the antecedent thing. Right?
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    … because it means crossing a line that threatens our own humanity too.

    This actually reads quite well. But you’re right to query the grammar. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    It makes no sense to say that the line that’s crossed threatens our own humanity. It’s the crossing of that line that does so. So the syntax only works if the phrase “crossing a line” is seen to act as a noun phrase, or if it can be tweaked to do so:

    … because it means the crossing of a line that threatens our own humanity too.
    … because it means a [moral] line-crossing that threatens our own humanity too.​

    or (although this is really stretching a point) if we assume the sentence to have been reduced, for example from:

    … because it means crossing a line [to an extent / in a way] that threatens our own humanity too.​
     
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