The Trolley Problem

While the sessions of the American Philosophical Society I described yesterday covered work I hadn’t directly studied during my One Year BA (albeit by philosophers I had taken courses on), the last session I attended dealt directly with something first discovered through a MOOC course: The Trolley Problem.

For those unfamiliar with it, the Trolley Problem is a thought experiment in ethical philosophy (introduced to me and many others in Michael Sandel’s HarvardX ethics course Justice) that looks at how people respond different variations of the same moral dilemma.

The trolley in question has just lost its brakes and is hurtling down the tracks towards five people who will unquestionably be killed if the driver does nothing.  However, the driver has the opportunity to switch the car to a different track where only one person is located, meaning switching tracks will save five but unquestionably kill one.

Most people choose to switch tracks, even if the scenario is changed to where you are not the driver but instead a bystander who happens to be standing next to a switch that will do the same thing as the driver turning his wheel (switching tracks which will end up killing one to save five).

When asked why they would make this choice, most people claim some variant on the Utilitarian principle that saving more lives is better than saving fewer.  But then the scenario is switched to one where the bystander is standing on a bridge next to a fat man whose is heavy enough that if he is thrown in front of the trolley, he will be killed but his weight (unlike yours) is sufficient to stop the trolley and save the five.  In this case, one person would also be sacrificed to save more than one.  But most people presented with this scenario refuse to use this same Utilitarian math to justify hurtling a stranger in front of a trolley.

When Sandel was introducing this thought experiment to Harvard undergraduates, most of them struggled to justify why one action (pulling the switch) that would lead to someone’s death was justified while another (throwing a man off a bridge) was not.  But another way of looking at the problem is to try to figure out whether people’s general instinct (to kill one by switching tracks but not by throwing the fat man off the bridge) can be justified through philosophical principles, vs. simple psychological factors (such as people’s understandable revulsion over the hands-on killing of a stranger vs. the more antiseptic switch pulling).

A number of novel elements have been added to the problem over the years (such as the lever causing a trap door to open under the fat man causing him to fall into the path of the oncoming trolley, rather than a track switch).  But even when the choice involves the same physical action (the pulling of a lever – which eliminates the need to lay hands on the person who will die), most people still choose to kill the man on the tracks but sacrifice five to let the single fat man live.

At the APA session I attended, the Dutch Kant scholar Pauline Kleingeld (who also participated in that Kant session I described yesterday) claimed that Kant’s moral philosophy provided the grounds to justify the choice most people make when deciding how to handle the trolley dilemma.

Unlike the simple Utilitarian calculus of greatest good (or greatest happiness) for the greatest number, Kant’s philosophy rests of motive, a Categorical Imperative (which asks you to consider what would happen if you turn the principle you use to justify an action to a universal moral law) and the requirement that people never be used as “mere means” to an end.

Simply put, motives matter for Kant.  So even if one shopkeeper chooses to not swindle customers because getting caught would cause him to lose business and another one eschews swindling because cheating people is always wrong, only the second shopkeeper is behaving morally even though both men are performing the same action (treating all customers honestly).

With this as backdrop, the person at the switch (or the trolley driver) could justify switching tracks either by (1) deciding that one person can be sacrificed to save five; or (2) that all things being equal (i.e., no other choice is available), pulling the switch is the best choice even though it will lead to someone’s death.  While this seems like a subtle distinction, for Kant it plays the important role of providing a motive (or maxim) that does not require the person on the track to act as the “mere means” towards an end.

In contrast, there is no such maxim that could characterize the fat man on the bridge as anything other than “mere means.”  For if he was not on the bridge (or was too light to stop the trolley) then no action would result, meaning his role is solely (or merely) as the means towards an end.

Apparently, this Kantian explanation is controversial (even within Kant circles), but I’ll admit to finding it convincing, even compelling.  Even so, this was the one session where I raised my hand to ask a question (regarding whether the “all things being equal” motive could be construed as a post-hoc psychological justification vs. a moral maxim).  And while Professor Kleingeld put me in my place pretty easily (noting a Kantian prohibition against “maxim tinkering” I was unaware of), it was good to discover that my question was no less challenging for her than others she received from the PhD’s in the room (including the commenter on the stage with her).

As my philosophy buddy pointed out, the biggest problem with the solution is that it pre-supposes you have already bought into Kant’s moral reasoning.   But even if the argument ultimately fails to convince philosophers and a public that can’t seem to get enough of the Trolley Problem (two books came out on the dilemma just this year), I was pleased to discover that my One Year BA left me able to not just follow along but to participate in a discussion about both an intriguing question and one of history’s most important philosopher’s potential answer to that question – two subjects I knew nothing about twelve months ago.

Now my experience did not turn me into the equivalent of the well-read professors and grad students at the conference, any one of whom could have made mincemeat of me had I over-stepped or over-reached.  But an undergraduate education facilitated entirely by free learning resources allowed me to participate and learn alongside a hotel full of men and women whose knowledge and passion generated inspiration vs. intimidation in this philosophical tourist.

While I won’t go into the goings on at the evening “Smoker” that ended the day, I can’t end my APA story without mentioning my run in with Professor Ram Neta from UNC, one of the professors for the first MOOC I ever took (Think Again: How to Reason and Argue). I was happy to learn that his course is about to go into its third iteration (which will include some intriguing new assessment features), and it was a pleasure sharing with him how his work inspired my own.

And with that philosophical field trip/final exam behind me it’s time to focus on the last subject I’d like to talk about this year: what this Degree of Freedom project might mean with regard to independent learners.

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2 Responses to The Trolley Problem

  1. Amber February 7, 2014 at 11:53 am #

    I’m curious as to why your article does not mention the difference between the two “trolley” scenarios being that with the track switch the action is purely a choice to save 1 person or 5 persons. While in the second scenario the action is to kill a person not currently in danger in order to save 5 persons. It seems to me that the Kant philosophy you described doesn’t really address this human instinct to save people and not kill them.

  2. Gwen February 7, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    The other issue is assumption of risk. If I am standing on trolley tracks, I know there’s a chance a trolley could come along and hit me. If I put myself into a position where I cannot get off the tracks easily, I know the chances of getting hit increase. The people on the tracks have taken on that risk. The fat man is minding his own business. He has assumed no risk, and will only be hit if an outside agent pushes him in front of the train. I am not a student of philosophy, so I can’t attribute this thought to any school. It’s simply my own rationale.

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