A trolley is approaching a track junction, and you happen to be standing by the switch. If you do nothing, the trolley will kill a number of innocent children playing on the tracks.
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?