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Affect And The Trolley Problem

Crooked Timber points to the latest media discussion of philosophical thought experiments. Such discussions inevitably end up focusing on the classic "trolley problem." In a nutshell, most people would pull a switch to send a runaway trolley down a side track, killing one person to save the five on the main track. But they would not push a fat man* onto the track in such a way that he dies but he stops the trolley from killing the five.

The first response is usually to look for rational justifications for judging the situations differently. Typically these depend on the act-omission distinction. But sooner or later someone will raise the possibility that people aren't obeying the hypothetical. They import details that make the situation more realistic (e.g. by positing that it's uncertain whether the fat man would adequately stop the trolley), or insist on finding a third option ("I'd find something else to throw on the track"). Usually this resistance to the terms of the hypothetical is interpreted as a reaction to how unrealistic the thought experiments are. Real life is complicated enough to at least present the illusion of the possibility of having your cake and eating it too, whereas thought experiments ruthlessly abstract from our experience.

But I think a glance through the risk literature shows that this resistance to accepting the terms of a moral dilemma is not limited to unrealistic hypotheticals. Social psychologists have asked people to rate the risks and benefits of various real activities, from food coloring to flying to nuclear power. And they have found that risk and benefit judgments are strongly negatively correlated -- people believe that an activity with a high risk has few benefits, but one with many benefits has little risk. What's more, presenting information that raises people's opinions of the benefit lowers their opinion of the risk, and vice-versa.

Risk perception researchers explain this with the concept of "affect." Affect is a general positive or negative feeling toward something. People derive their judgments about the details of a thing by choosing those details that will support their affect. So if you have a negative disposition toward nuclear power, you will tend to make your opinion internally consistent by evaluating the risks as high and the benefits as low.

Affect can also be an explanation to resistance to the hypothetical in the case of the trolley problem. People want to think of switching the track or pushing the fat man as either good or bad. But the way the problem is set up, either choice is regrettable, because you have to kill at least one person. Thus people search for a way to reinterpret or stretch the situation such that they have a clear choice. If you assume there's a big rock that can also stop the trolley, there's nothing compromising your feeling that stopping it is a good thing.

*Apparently all ethical philosophers are skinny.


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