Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More on Trolleys

I've beeen reading Marc D. Hauser's Moral Minds lately and came across the Trolley Problem again in there. I know I've an entry somewhere on this blog on it, but some new thoughts on it popped into my head which I thought were worth recording. Besides, this is the first blog post that I'm banging out on a recently liberated wee little Vaio, so I figured this piddly little machine deserved a proper baptism under my overly large, callused fingers.

Here are the 5 variations of the Trolley Problem I'll be looking at.

Case 1 - The Simple Switch
An out of control train trolley is hurtling down a track, on which are 5 hapless victims, tied there by a mad philosopher. You happen to be in the control room, and in front of you is a swtich. Flip the switch, and the trolley will be sent off to another track, on which is tied 1 victim. Do you flip the switch or not?

Case 2 - Push the Fat Guy
As before, trolley hurtling towards 5 people. This time, instead of the control room, you're at a platform between the trolley and the 5 victims. Standing next to you is a very large man. We assume that pushing him in front of said trolley will be quite sufficient to stop the trolley and save the 5. Do you push the the Fat Guy?

Case 3 - Loop and Fat Guy
Again, trolley and 5 victims. This time, you've got access to a switch, and flipping it will send it off to a loop of track where it comes back and squishes the 5 victims anyway. What's the bloody point of that, you ask? As the heading suggests, there's a fat guy on the loop, who is, of course, large enough to halt the trolley. Flip the switch?

Case 4 -Loop and Boulder
Same as case 3, but this time, instead of a conveniently placed fat guy, we have a boulder. BUT there happens to be some poor sap, not necessarily fat, standing in front of said boulder. Flip swtich, off goes the trolley, into the boulder and turning one hapless victim into jam in the process. Oh, well. Flip the switch?

Note: If, like myself, you are a truly cold-blooded utilitarian with a heart of igneous rock, you may not immediately the difference between cases 3 and 4. It was only on reading Moral Minds that the difference was made clear to me. Basically, in case 3, you are consciously using a Fat Guy as the means to save the 5 lives. In case 4, the guy in front of the boulder just happens to have the crap luck of being there. In 3 you are wilfully killing someone to save 5. In 4, he's collateral damage. Geddit?

Case 5 - Organ Donor
This time, the problem is set inside a hospital. You're a doctor and you've got 5 patients, each of whom are in dire need of various organ transplants. And who should walk in but a random hiker who just happens to have lovely, healthly organs ripe for the picking? Assume, of course, that harvesting the hiker's organs guarantees survival of the 5 patients. So... slice and dice?

The first 4 cases were covered in Moral Minds, the last is one I remembered from a Wikipedia article on the Trolley problem. More often than not, the usual answers to the above cases of the Trolley Problem are as follows:

Case 1 - Yes, flip the switch.
Case 2 - No, don't push Fat Guy
Case 3 - No, don't flip the switch. (About 60% of the time, so I hear)
Case 4 - Yes, flip the switch. (This can be alittle uncertain, depending on the answer to Case 3.)
Case 5 - Hell, no, don't dissect the hiker! It's icky!

Considering the similarities of the 5 cases, the divide in the distributions of the answers strikes me as interesting. Do nothing, 5 die. Do something, 1 dies. Case 1 is almost invariably answered 'Yes'* on the simple irrefutable grounds that, assuming no knowledge of the vicims identities, 5 is more than 1, so tough luck to the 1. They say this with such certainty, then funnily enough, they balk when faced with Case 5.

I suppose Case 5 as a certain element of grey about it. Faced with such a situation, our minds are drawn to the uncertainties of surgery. Are the diagnoses of the 5 patients really correct? Can the hiker's organs be extracted flawlessly? Can they implanted with no complications? What if someone finds out and the hospital gets in trouble for it, denying access to medical help for hundreds more? Even with all these doubts addressed by idealizing assumptions, rare indeed is the person who unflinchingly says, 'Well, tough luck for the hiker. 5 is more than 1.' In my experience, when I present the 5 Cases in person, whoever I'm asking will say 'No', and then comes an interesting display of mental gymnastics as they try to justify their position.

Anyway, I'm not here to natter on about my justifications for the answers that pop in my head. What I wanted to bring up were some subsequent questions to the above 5 cases. For instance, what if all the lives being weighed against each other were replaced, by animals, say? By chickens, cows, cats, penguins, whatever? I'm thinking that, in most minds, the 5 cases all simply become a case of 5 is more than 1, so bye-bye to the 1. In fact, if Case 5 becomes all about animals, anoter question arises on whether it's even worth expending such effort to save the lives of animals in such an elaborate fashion in the first place!

This led me to another iteration, much in the same vein as the Philosopher's Cyborg** - what if the lives in the 5 Cases were replaced with robots? Again, it becomes simple mathematics. 5 is more than 1. But what if those robots were androids, each with a unique accumulation of many years of memories sitting inside a processor so absurdly advanced that there is no way whatsoever of replicating said memories? Is it still simple math? What is the difference between these androids and the humans in the original 5 Cases? What if these androids are even older, each a perfect repository of hundreds of years of accumulated memories?

In my eyes, every variation of the 5 cases, assuming no knowledge of the identities of those whose lives are being weighed, is a simple case of 5 is more than 1. Apart from the practical considerations of Case 5, i.e. the possibility of some sort of failure at some stage of trying to save the 5, there doesn't seem to be any logical reason to value 1 over 5.

But then again, this is a philosopher's question. I find the single most important lesson I've learnt about philosophy is that while philosophy teaches us to ask very important questions, these days, it offers no answers. Answers come from science, and I'm still only halfway through Hauser's exceedingly interesting book.

* And to those I've encountered who answer 'No, I wan't nothing to do with making such a choice!', seriously, you are spineless below contempt.

**I think I wrote about it somewhere earlier, though I didn't call it that at the time. There will be a post on it shortly, 'onest, guv.

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