Sunday, May 11, 2008

Never stand between a utilitarian and a train

I was reading an article in an older issue of Sci Am and came across some interesting responses to the Trolley Problem. For those not familiar or who can't be bothered to click the generously provided link, the Trolley Problem is:

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

That's the basic version. Do nothing, 5 die. Flip the switch, 1 dies. Easiest thing in the world. The version being discussed in the article was a little more close and personal. Only a little. Instead of flipping a switch, this one places you behind a really fat dude at a platform next to the track. Pushing him onto the track would stop the trolley. According to Judith J Thompson, a philosopher who has extensively analysed the Trolley Problem, many people willing to flip the switch wouldn't go so far as to push the fat dude.

The utilitarian approach is simple enough: 5 is more than 1. 1 must die. I must confess, it sounds perfectly reasonable to me. The response I was reading that interested me was as follows:

"No, I would not push a bulky person in front of a train in attempt to stop it to save five. Why? (1) Physics: there is no way in God's green earth that a 200- or 300- pound person is going to stop several thousand tons going even 30 miles an hour. Children should be raised with that understanding, and anyone who does not understand that should go back to grade school..."

The reader went on in that vein for a bit longer, then explained her anal retentiveness on the physics of it with the following:

"Yes, I am not in the "spirit" of the question. Yet the moral dilemma was presented to me to THINK about, to evaluate and respond. So I did."

To which I have to say: I think I know exactly who I'd push in front of the train/trolley. Spoken in the most neutral terms, her decision means that in the choice between allowing 1 or 5 to live, she would choose 1. And she covers her self-righteous hide with appeals to laws of physics in a hypothetical question. AND she even goes on to play the "think of the children" card! Pathetic!

Anyway, no more time to waste on idiots... The Trolley Problem has a few other versions worth thinking about. Here's one that gave me pause:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

I know my answer, and I'm fucking glad I'm not a doctor. There's also the matter of who those people are on the track. e.g. What if the one person was:

- Your mother?
- The President of the US? (ahahaha... trick question...)
- The Pope? (Atheists! Ssh!)
- Richard Dawkins?

And what if the 5 people were:

- convicts?
- children?
- [insert ethnic minority here]?
- cancer patients?
- Ann Coulter, Shirley Phelps-Roper*, Deepak Chopra, Donald Rumsfeld and George W Bush? (Ah, now I'm just fantasizing... :-D)

And lastly, what if YOU were on the trolley with a whopping huge bomb which you could trigger and would annihilate you AND the trolley, saving the 5 on the track?

But hey, it's just a thought experiment. There's only ONE way to know for sure what you'd do in that situation. May none of us ever have to find out...

Oh, and on a side note, you've probably realised by now that the Greater Good I follow most certainly means a very utilitarian outlook on life. As such, I'd really like to hear solid justification why somebody should NOT flip the switch in the basic version of the Trolley Problem. I try to keep an open mind, but I honestly cannot see any reason not to flip the switch. As such, comments are really, really welcome for this particular entry.

*or anybody else from, really.

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