Lessons from the Trolley Problem

Monday, May 16, 2016 -- 5:00 PM
John Perry

This week's topic:  Lessons from the Trolley Problem -- When Is It Wrong  to Save a Life?

There is nothing morally special about trolleys, except the historical accident that around thirty years ago the great philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson used trolleys in a series of examples, originally to help us think about moral aspects of abortion. Since that time a zillion articles have been written about the trolley problem, applying it to all sorts of moral issues.

The original version was due to Foot, but the classic version is due to Thomson.  You happen to be standing by a switch on a trolley line.  A trolley is coming.  You see that if it continues on the track it is on it will run over five adorable innocent children.  You can throw the switch and divert the trolley to a side track.  But, unfortunately, a man has chosen to fall asleep on that track.  So the question is: do you throw the switch or not?  Most people would throw the switch.

On the other hand, if you reverse the scenario, so throwing the switch saves the man but kills the children, most people won't throw it.  This works even when you make the man an adorable child too.  So, it seems we are utilitarians, doing what is best for the larges number of people.

The fact that most people would make these choices doesn't make them right.  These choices reflect our "moral intuitions".  And one might think that although they aren't definitive, moral intuitions have to be the basis of moral theory.  The moral intuitions we have in cases like this are analogous to the results of experiments in the physical sciences.  They are the data, the starting point.  The job of moral theory is to explain our intuitions.   Just as physicists find laws that explain the results of experiments and other physical observations, moral philosophers must find principles that explain our moral  intuitions.

But the beauty of the trolley problem is that admits of many variations, and the intuitions don't always seem to cohere.  This is good, as it gives a chance to do philosophy.  Our guest is Thomas Cathcart, who has written a book called The Trolley Problems, Or, Would you Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge.  The title stems from a variation to the basic case.  Instead of sleeping on the tracks, the guy is sitting on the bridge next to you, with the trolley running underneath, headed towards the five children.  The guy is fat, not because of a politically incorrect stigma attaching to fat people, but because, unlike you, we are supposing he has enough heft that by pushing him off the bridge in front of the trolley you can stop it before it hits the children.  Most people wouldn't push the fat man off the bridge.  So much for utilitarianism.   

But it gets more complicated.  If the choice is tripping a trap door that the fat man happens to be sitting on, letting him drop on the tracks, significantly more people are ready to sacrifice him.  

Do our moral intuitions really make sense?  Are they really important?  Aren't they the result of evolution, and parents and Sunday School teachers, all innocent of moral theory?  Evolution makes me more fearful of snakes than ticks.  But those days, a Lyme disease carrying tick is much more dangerous than a king snake or a garter snake.  Intuitively, there are twice as many natural number as there are even numbers, but set theory tells us this is not so.  Intuitions lead us astray in all sorts of ways.  Is the Trolley Problem leading us down the wrong track?

 

 

Comments (19)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, October 18, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I suggest that the seeming

I suggest that the seeming incoherence of moral intuitions that you pointed out and which arise from moral experiments such as the Trolly problem, may be less an indication of the differences between our true moral intuitions as much as an indication of how we are all caught in the dichotomy of being disinterested vs invested agents.
Part of what is characteristic of a moral dilemma in my opinion, is that it something that challenges the personal value system upon which we identify ourselves, and it is a scenario in which we have the ability to intervene. Under such a scenario, knowing to have the ability to intervene and choosing not to, would put us in a position where our inaction would, much as our action would have, serve to define us.
Consider now that the way we have been socially engineered or "socialized" has been under utilitarian inspired principals and the values of consequentialism - arguably necessary in the assessment of the rights of persons who constitute part of a collective.
Its not difficult to see that any examination of a moral dilemma will evoke two necessarily different reactions from us: First, a very personal and vested consideration of event elements and possible implications for the self as an agent of intervention / non-intervention; Second, a utilitarian based, necessarily dis-interested assessment of what would be the appropriate reaction as a non-invested agent in the scenario.
I suggest that the dilemmas such experiments flush out are really ones existing within each of us as an incoherence between social engineering and an intuitive moral response. We have been socialized to assess moral problems from the viewpoint of one who is identified primarily as part of a collective (personally detached), Simultaneously we are instinctively moved to make an assessment as an agent who is continuously defined by his / her choice of action / non action.
Then the response to the moral dilemma, in the end, is measured again against consequential implications in the context of the collective.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, October 19, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

There are known, unknown, and

There are known, unknown, and unknowable consequences of my actions and inactions in every scenario. My default stance is non-interventionist. Pushing the fast man onto the tracks to save the cute little children assumes that the net benefit of the cost/benefit trade-off is positive (4 children > 1 fat man). However, we don't know what the value of the children's lives versus the value of the fat man is. For all we know the children will become a band of bandits who will terrorize society for years to come, whereas the fat man is a cancer researcher on the verge of a break-through.
If I know that my actions will improve the situation in positive directions all around (no cost in any direction) then I will act. If there are unknown or unknowable effects of my action then I must default to inaction and let circumstance take it's natural cause, as if I wasn't there... unless of course I have some other overriding responsibility or duty to act in a certain way that agrees with my morality.
I believe this stance prevents the trauma surgeon from harvesting a living person's various organs to save multiple accident victims.

MJA's picture

MJA

Sunday, October 20, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

A Trolley Problem

A Trolley Problem
I once worked for a trolley (transit) company that trained its employees in first aid and CPR to help passengers, coworkers, or anyone in need. That company was out bid by another management company who in their moral profit and loss judgement stopped the the first aid training and told its employees for liability sake not to help others in trouble or need. Money was the switch! =

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, October 20, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I think we misjudge both the

I think we misjudge both the value of moral intuitions and the time frame when they appear and are of use to us. While the trolley car model appears to be a way to clarify our moral options in a particular situation , in fact moral intuitions normally appear after something has happened, not before. And most often they appear not in relation to our own actions but to those of others. I think our morality is applied retrospectively, after an action. Our moral intuitions and in general our moral senses are rarely prescriptive, instead they're "critical" in the aesthetic sense. And our moral intuitions are similar to the sorts of judgments we make about art works or drama or music. The role of the moralist like that of the art critic is to create a vocabulary to appreciate the different values informing human actions and to judge them in relation to context. Moral action like art almost always becomes more opaque and complicated as we examine it critically. The value of morality then is to explain human action to us, just as any story tells us something about the kinds of people we are and perhaps want to be. But it does not tell us the kind of people we 'ought" to be.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, October 21, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

The problem with the "trolley

The problem with the "trolley problem" can be illustrated by stepping outside moral philosophy into jurisprudence. In law, the actions of an individual are sometimes compared to the hypothetical action of a fictional "reasonable person." When there is no reasonable action, as is the case in the trolley problem, any legal (or moral) argument seems moot.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 21, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

The Trolley Problem is a

The Trolley Problem is a variation on several older puzzles which were also designed to test human sensibilities and sensitivities---the United States' military establishment is noted for such mind gamesmanship. I'm pretty sure you guys (and Laura) know this. In any case, there is no RIGHT answer or correct solution to the "problem."
Never was. Never will be.
Harold

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, October 23, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

What bothers me about this

What bothers me about this dilemma is that "You" actually have another choice that was not discussed: "you" could jump off the bridge yourself. Knowing that makes pushing anyone else (the "Fat man") - regardless of how s/he is described - off the bridge a despicable act of cowardice! It would be presumptuous and unconscionable. What a horrible predicament for "You"! If "you" go ahead and push the the "Fat man" to his death, you will live with that knowledge for the rest of your life, knowing you could have saved the children AND the "Fat man" by jumping yourself.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

It seemed clear by the end of

It seemed clear by the end of the show (especially when discussing whether to sacrifice one's own kin to save unknown kids) that our abstract moral rationalizing is rather a thin veneer over much deeper drives which actually determine people's choices. For example, that our moral sense is essentially motivated by empathy, and that we don't like taking obviously violent actions we would not want perpetrated on us (being pushed involuntarily into the path of the trolley). Using a mechanism (a switch and trapdoor) engages our rational faculties, while pushing the fat man directly elicits emotional revulsion. That we change our calculus for kin versus non-kin makes a pretty strong case for an evolutionary basis for these emotional drives on our behavior.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I am always (if not in all

I am always (if not in all ways) entranced with human expressions of opinion and ideology. Sacrifice is usually never altruistic. This is true on both a conscious and genetic level: everything wants something for the least expenditure of effort (energy) and resources (available capital or stored fuel.) Easier is better. There have been numerous treatises written on this, yet most of us choose to pursue convoluted and difficult paths, because old paradigms say overcoming adversity builds character. That which does not kill you makes you stronger. Hogwash. That which does not kill you wastes time and energy you could have devoted to better endeavors. And that creates, among other things, the dark side of science---a different post, certainly---but related, absolutely.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

There are few true

There are few true dichotomies in life? and the decision to push a man onto the tracks in practice is a collective decision. The question of a morally justifiable sacrifice, as the trolley problem was originally framed, fails to acknowledging the underling plurality of solutions which arise with each unique situation.
Provided information about the trolley's potential destinations (probabilities), knowledge of the tracks involved, and experienced engineers, can we estimate the time required for a work around? A moral trolly conductor will (assuming he is committed to transporting individuals without injury, death, or a speeding ticket) slow the trolley down deliberately to give engineers the time they need to implement a solution.
After an estimate has been provided, and all attempts have been made to respond to the situation, will the contemplation of pushing men onto tracks become moral. It is immoral to inflict potentially unnessisary harm if YOU are not responding to the situation with the urgency you would expect if your own life was on the line. Free riding isn't reserved to passengers if the trolley is transporting for the benefit of your community.
The time before the fork (and collision) would be more appropriately visualized using an Olympic curling analogy (its a team sport).
If you need to push this fat man (please don't call him fat, he's sensitive)
onto the tracks for other reasons, then do it after the trolley has passed.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, November 7, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Trolley problems and other

Trolley problems and other contrivances are unhelpful if we are truly interested in resolving ethical questions. If we look upon real-world occurrences and outcomes, we can learn much more, and, in time, reach useful conclusions about where we went wrong---unless we are encased in the intractabilities of historionicity that immobilized us in the first place. When I was a child, someone found a Roy Rogers cowboy glove I had lost on a playground. I had the other glove, found out who had its mate, proceeded to retrieve my property from his desk during recess, and was chastised for "theft" of my own property. That all got sorted out and ultimately, the true thief lost---I got my glove back. A small thing, sure---but important to a five-year old who had been taught justice.
Way now, sixty years later, this world is lost in its own intractability. Historionicity reigns continent to continent, and it is only partly due to religious differences. Culture, an outgrowth of religion, is far more dangerous. And greed? certainly. I wanted my glove back. Others want more---to which they have questionable rights.
You can't always get what you want. But---You won't always want what you get. Heh.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 16, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

This post and the one

This post and the one concerning morality and revenge, fired several neurons. The five-year old (who was more probably six or seven) wanted justice. Most of us can relate to that sort of idealistic expectation. But, as we are all aware, people more frequently than not don't act right. I do not believe there is morality in acts of revenge. A current television series capitalizes on greedy games for greedy people, including the vapid little tramp known as Emily. Well, it is "entertainment", after all, and if it gets your adrenalin flowing and your heart rate up, your doctor should be pleased! Maybe---but you still need to go to the gym.
Sorry. I digressed. Sort of. I agree with a previous assessment regarding trolley problems and such like. What ifs do not translate to what ares. I have never intentionally killed anyone. Hopefully, I'll never be forced to make that decision. But, we just don't know, and, justice is a powerful motivator, yes?

M. Newton's picture

M. Newton

Saturday, December 28, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Never say "never." If you do,

Never say "never." If you do, make your argument explicit.
Why is there no RIGHT answer? How do you know there never will be a solution?
Aren't you declaring an opposition to ethics as such? And, for that matter, to thinking as such?

alex619's picture

alex619

Sunday, February 1, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

engages our rational

engages our rational faculties, while pushing the fat man directly elicits emotional revulsion.
ng alone,defectively,leads to faulty logic and ill-conceived conclusions. I suppose this is normal-human. Dennett, like him or no, has often said we need to make mistakes, valentines day quotes valentines day poems valentines day quotes for him valentines day poems for him in order to learn. Yes.I think so too..
 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, May 14, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The moral factician strikes

The moral factician strikes again!

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, May 16, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Moral intuitions? Yes, we

Moral intuitions? Yes, we have those. Whether they are a result of Sunday School or other learned or memetic behaviors I cannot say. Certainly, there are many instances of the ubiquitous Trolley Problem which occur in daily discourse. And, as has been said before, there are few (if any) right answers. How any of us choose to "solve" such problems can depend on how we feel about them when they present themselves.  Moral intuitions can be altered by what happened five hours or five minutes ago. We are, at once, principled and corruptible and today, I might throw the fat man off the bridge; tomorrow, I might snuff the five adorable children. There is a lot of talk about trends and trending right now. It appears to be the next big thing for advertisers and marketers. There have always been trends but they were not raisons' d'etre as they seem to be at this moment. Let me offer a notion for your edification. I call it Neuman's Postulate:

All creeds, doctrines and dogmas are corruptible. Corruptibility (and its potentiality) increases exponentially with the relativistic drive towards comporting "reality" with new paradigms.
Creeds, doctrines and dogmas are either human creations or human interpretations of things beyond our understanding. In either case, there is great potential for error or misunderstanding. The current uproar over the rights of transgender individuals offers an interesting (and comparatively new) paradigm.Those who see this as a civil rights issue (i.e., sex discrimination) believe that such persons should be permitted to use restroom facilities, in alignment with their sex as shown on birth records. This offends and enrages those who do not want to subject their children to such close encounters, new paradigms notwithstanding. Both sides of this furor are missing something seminal, seems to me. And here is where it gets even messier. I'll probably regret this, but: In the larger scheme of things,transgender individuals are neither fully male nor female. I don't recall hearing anyone raising this point in the public forum. Not yet, anyway. So, you see, the transgender uproar is a Trolley Problem; as is the fact that we are currently without the services of a fully staffed United States Supreme Court. Corruptibility comes in many colors and wears different clothing than it did five minutes or five hours ago.
HGN
 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, May 19, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

There is no moral calculus

There is no moral calculus because there is no equivalence to a moral act. Of course this always leaves us with a rational dilemma, but it does not follow that, therefore, there must be a moral calculus or set of guidelines, or 'commandments', obligating our compliance.
Harry,
Are you sure of your terms? I mean, how very Lutheran! But there is a difference between corrupt and corruptible. And isn't the latter just another word for changeable? If so, the real question is the character of that change. And if rational systems, of viewing and analyzing facts, cannot sustain their own paradigms, then isn't intuition required as part of the mitigation? At the very least, the intuition that reason isn't the perfect arbiter? There is difference that comes unilaterally, changing or distorting the facts to sustain the paradigm, or changing the paradigm with every new or contrary fact. There is also a mode of change in which fact and reason, and respondents in it, engage dialectically in a dramatic alteration of the terms of perception and discourse through which we emerge into something rather more of the same language. But in order to get there there must be disagreement and dissent. From a rationalist or "moralist" view this is corruption incarnate. From a human perspective nothing could be less corruptible.

 

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