Trolleyology 101

As Philippa Foot original framed the thought experiment in "The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect" (in her "Virtues and Vices"), a runaway trolley will kill five trackworkers unless you switch it to a siding where it will only kill one hapless victim.  There will inevitably be a death, but whether it is just the one or five is up to you.  Should you flip the switch?

Studies show most say "yes".

Indeed, utilitarianism seems to imply that you are morally obligated to flip the switch.  What should you do if you reject all consequentialist theories?  Then see the Principle of Double Effect.

In her 1976 Monist article "Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem", Judith Jarvis Thompson suggested an alternative to Foot's original thought experiment.  Suppose that there is no siding and no switch.  Instead, you are standing on a footbridge over the tracks and see the runaway trolley at the same time as a very fat man leaning over the side next to you. 

Should you push the fat man over onto the tracks to stop the trolley from killing the five?  (He's fat enough to stop the trolley, but he will surely be killed as a result.)

Studies show most say they should not push the fat man onto the tracks, which suggests a problem with our moral consistency.  To test your moral consistency, take this short experiment.

Wired Magazine has a terrific article, "Kill Whitey. It’s the Right Thing to Do.", about psychologist David Pizaro's clever experiments extending so-called Trolley Cases to include racial scenarios.  (They also link to an Edge video of Pizarro discussing his research.)  From Wired, Pizarro told me on the phone, “The idea is not that people are or are not utilitarian; it’s that they will cite being utilitarian when it behooves them. People aren’t using these principles and then applying them. They arrive at a judgment and seek a principle.”

So we’ll tell a child on one day, as Pizarro’s parents told him, that ends should never justify means, then explain the next day that while it was horrible to bomb Hiroshima, it was morally acceptable because it shortened the war. We act — and then cite whichever moral system fits best, the relative or the absolute.

Pizarro says this isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just different. It means we draw not so much on consistent moral principles as on a moral toolbox. And if these studies show we’re not entirely consistent, they also show we’re at least determined — really determined, perhaps, given the gyrations we go through to try to justify our actions — with behaving morally. We may choose from a toolbox — but the tools are clean.

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  Tissues in the


    Tissues in the Profession: 


Michael F. Patton, Jr.
Syracuse University


        Consider the following case:
        On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.
        On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans' bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.
        If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, "Leftie" and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knowshearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, "Leftie" will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of "Leftie's" act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by "Leftie" are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and "Leftie" are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available, however the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.
        Assume that the brain's choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.
        QUESTION: What should the brain do?
        [ALTERNATIVE EXAMPLE: Same as above, except the brain has had a commisurotomy, and the left half of the brain is a consequentialist and the right side is an absolutist.] 
        Copyright, 1988 by the American Philosophical Association
        Most real philosophers will never be able to read this paragraph. Several of them have died of laughter-induced heart attacks. Other have their vision blurred by tears of laughter. If you can still read this, and are thinking to yourself "Sure, everyone else says this Patton is a genius, but I don't see it," then you need to go to the Nonphilosopher's Explanation Page! All the people who really appreciate this spent at least five years in philosophy graduate school. Most of their laughter would be dismissed by mental health professionals as an hysterical symptom of some coping mechanism, one desperately trying to reconcile them to their fates as professional philosophers. You, however, can go on with your relatively normal life (I say relatively because you are surfing the web instead of something less geeky) and still get some of the jokes in this article by reading the Nonphilosopher's Explanation Page. It will be fun, enlightening, and it will forever remove those nagging doubts you had about what they were doing in philosophy class--they were ruining their lives.*
        * Some people think that explaining a joke sucks all of the humor out of it. I suggest these people read Dr. Harry Johnson's 546 page manuscript (as yet unpublished) on the nature of humor. It is tentatively titled The Roots of Humor in the Denial of the Obvious