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Trolley logic

Neil Sinhababu offers a new variant on the classic trolley problems -- in this one, you're near the five potential victims on the track but have a button you can push to collapse a distant scaffolding, on which one person (BMI not specified) is standing, to stop a runaway train. My first suspicion, posted there in the comment section, was that he was trying to debunk the whole intuitionist enterprise by showing how few people are willing to give straight answers to this kind of unrealistic hypothetical, calling into question statements like "obviously our intuition is that you should do X" or "Y% of people agree that you should do X."

(Philosophers are generally not keen on this sort of resistance, seeing it as uncooperativeness or an attempt to dodge having to make a tough decision. That's certainly one element, but I think another important feature is that intuitive moral judgment is a learned skill, not an innate faculty. So it makes some sense to think that intuitions about unrealistic hypotheticals -- ones far removed from the types of situations people have practice in navigating -- don't tell us much. This is not to say, however, that intuitions about common situations are necessarily better. If I may reference Jane Addams again, intuitions become reliable when we reflectively engage in a diversity of morally significant situations.)

My second theory -- which I tried to post but was foiled by clogged internets tubes -- was somewhat confirmed by Sinhababu's later post. The classic trolley problem dilemma is that people are unwilling to push a fat man onto the track to stop a runaway train that would otherwise kill five innocent people, but are willing to throw a switch to send the train onto a side track where only one potential victim is sitting. I had a suspicion he might be trying to separate the "immediateness" explanation of the former intuition (you don't want to do it because you're so physically close to the fat man and his death) from the other possibilities (doctrine of double effect, etc).

Sinhababu takes his theory as confirmed -- people seemed more open to pushing the scaffold-collapsing button than are usually willing to push the fat man. What I found interesting was the reasoning offered by commenters on that post. As I read it, most people offered reasons that weren't particularly sensitive to the details of the case -- either that it's always OK to sacrifice one person to save five, because more lives is better, or it's never OK, because you're actively killing the one person. If we were to hold commenters to their stated logics here, we should theoretically get the same results if we present them with either the fat man version (where typically hardly anyone will sacrifice one to save five) or the side track version (which most people are willing to do).

It would be interesting to test -- perhaps someone has already done this -- the contrast between how sensitive people actually are to details of scenarios versus the breadth of the reasons they assert to explain and justify their choice. I know there has been a substantial body of research showing that most moral reasoning is post-hoc rationalization of intuitive processes rather than reporting the actual process by which the person came to their conclusions.

(To reveal my own biases, I have a generally consequentialist viewpoint, and in particular I have yet to come upon a very convincing justification for the act-omission distinction that anti-consequentialist responses to trolley problems and related one-versus-many dilemmas (involving lifeguards, vaccines, evil executioners, etc) seem to turn on. So I always say I would be willing to sacrifice the one for the many if I were to truly be in the scenario as described. But I am extremely uncomfortable with that choice in some scenarios (albeit less than many other people), and would probably not be able to go through with it in real life.)


Blogger Alon Levy said...

Is it a fact that most people won't push the fat man? When my student group did this exercise, about 14 people out of 21 said they would push the man. However, when we raised a third problem, concerning a doctor who finds that a patient at his hospital is a perfect match for five people who need organ donations, all people but one said they wouldn't carve the patient for his organs.

It's mainly based on that exercise that I think the fact that the situation is unrealistic is a real issue. The side track version and the organ donation version are both semi-plausible, so they elicited near-universal answers, albeit in different directions; the prevailing explanation was that people don't go to hospitals expecting to be raided for their organs. The fat man version is contrived, so people were divided and gave confused answers.

1:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd also suggest that the fat man version means that you yourself are pretty darn close to that train.
Shouldn't you jump in yourself no matter how skinny, because that could maybe stop the train, and would certainly slow it down if the fat man would certainly stop it.

Also, if the fat man might stop the train, surely the fat man AND you would stop the train, so you both should go, right?

If you're unwilling to jump in yourself, how can you go pushing someone else?

The fat man version is not only less plausible, it also means you should die yourself.

7:10 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

On the act-omission distinction, I tend to feel that not making some sort of act-omission distinction leads to really creepy conclusions.

Take end of life decisions. Some gravely ill person wants to die, I, hypothetically, am a doctor, and am being asked by this person to assist in that death. If act-omission distinctions are morally nonsensical, then I have two choices:

1) If I have any qualms at all about assisted suicide, then I am morally obligated to omit no medical care, however extreme, arduous, and unwanted, that might possibly extend this person's life even a little. This conclusion feels ethically creepy and wrong to me.

2) If I believe (as seems ethically reasonable to me), that I'm obliged to quit pushing medical treatment onto an unwilling patient under at least some circumstances (even if only limited ones - patient is terminally ill, treatment is especially arduous), then I'm also, not just permitted, but morally obliged to assist the patient in committing suicide, under at least those same circumstances. This conclusion also feels creepy and wrong to me.

At the very least, there have to be some circumstances where one ethically ought to omit an act, without being obliged to actively take steps to bring about the same result. And therefore at least some moral sense to act-omission distinctions.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

Alon: Most places I've seen show a majority, albeit not universal, against pushing the fat man.

Terri: Interestingly enough, there's a recent article by J.J. Thompson, the person who came up with many of the original trolley problems, where she reasons along the lines you're suggesting and comes to the conclusion that she was wrong to ever say that there was any trolley problem where you're justified in sacrificing one to save five.

Lynn: I agree that denying the act-omission distinction leads to some pretty uncomfortable results (though I'm much more on board with assisted suicide than you are). The thing that concerns me, though, is that it's very hard to define exactly what things are acts and which are omissions absent any explanation for why we ought to be making that distinctioun.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Joel Monka said...

I've always been one of those who refuses to answer this sort of hypothetical, on grounds of unrealism- one can create artificial scenarios in which the Holocaust is "justified". When pressed, I have responded that I would murder the person who set up the scenario to protect the human race from a psychopath. The weight of his victims is irrelevant.

7:39 AM  

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