Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Stories Philosophers Tell: Trolleys


A runaway trolley is racing toward five people tied to the track. You are on a bridge over the track, and there is a very large man standing next to you whose weight would be enough to stop the train before it reaches the five people. Should you push him off the bridge in front of the train?

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

While ethics dictate no, I ask myself, "If this heavyweight can stop a trolley by sheer bulk, how could I ever manage to push him off the bridge?"

Marc Snyder said...

Ok, so let's say you're standing on a bridge with no guard rails next to a very large man wearing roller skates. . .

Stephen Falken said...

The question presumes that there is some inherent value to human life, which is certainly debatable. Five starving people could be saved for the cost a night out at the movies, yet people see movies and people starve. Therefore, anonymous people have little value. So the question is how well the reader empathisizes with the subjects of the story. Is the overweight person a subject for scorn whose life is forfeit to save five others? Or is he a beloved member of the community whose children would mourn is unexpected death?

Also, how do I come to have the knowledge that his weight will be enough to stop the trolley? Am I guessing? Do I really want someone throwing me in front of car tomorrow because they thought it was heading towards the kids on the corner and thought my body might deflect it? Do I really want a bunch of morons making such life and death guesses?

Really, it comes back to the central value of human life and whether each individual is allowed to play moral calculus. If I kill you, steal your money, but then donate it to the starving, thereby saving scores of lives, is that ok?

Marc Snyder said...

Hi Stephen! Your point about the value of anonymous people reminds me of yet another trolley problem, that being Peter Singer's, where you are one of a thousand people faced with the dilemma of destroying your Mercedes to save children somewhere in the far distance. If you don't destroy your Mercedes, you're counting on one of the next 999 person's at sidings to destroy theirs. Paul outlines quite a few of these trolley problems here:
http://philosophersdreams.blogspot.com/
if you're interested. . .

I'm a big fan of these stories for the strangeness of the events they describe - such odd little bits of fiction put in the service of serious questions.

Stephen Falken said...

If you answer "yes" to losing $60,000 worth of car for the child, of course, you need to ask why you aren't giving that much to save anonymous lives that are staving or sick today...

Here's a different thought problem dealing with human life: You're Superman. On TV, he's either saving the world or his close friends. But in reality, all over the world at any given time, lives could be saved: planes/ trains/ automobiles are crashing; fires are killing children; tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes are killing thousands. Not to mention individuals being killed by sharks or falling vending machines, or nearly shot by the vice president.

You have the ability to save human life with every second of your life, which is great. Of course, logic dictates that any time NOT spent saving lives COSTS lives. If you stop to chat with Lois, someone dies. If you try to relax for a moment over dinner, someone dies. Of course, you're going to need a minimum amount of downtime to rest and survive, but beyond that?

How does Superman value human life? Do you spend every moment humanly (superhumanly) possible saving lives? Or do you rationalize that you DESERVE a few moments rest to chat with a friend, even if people die?

Marc Snyder said...

I like your Superman story quite a lot. It would certainly be a lousy, guilt-ridden existence to be Superman. Paul and I were discussing "trolley-ish" stories the other day, and I think this falls into the "trolley-ish" camp - a trolley story without a trolley. Way back when we were both students we discussed a dilemma involving a witch, gastric distress, and the random death of an innocent victim to relieve the distress, which was also a "trolley-ish" story.

Though in this article he doesn't actually use his trolley story, here's Singer's response to the good question you pose, that "If you answer "yes" to losing $60,000 worth of car for the child, of course, you need to ask why you aren't giving that much to save anonymous lives that are starving or sick today...

http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972----.htm

a brief (relative to the article) quote that gives you one of his punchlines:

"if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position."

Paul Moriarty said...

Anonymous--Why would ethics dictate no? You're probably right, but it is by no mean obvious why this would be the case. Five people will die unless you do something to save them, and this appears to be the only thing you can do.

Anonymous said...

Now to open another can of worms: suppose there is a person on life support, with no chance of ever living independently again, with no chance of ever even speaking or interacting with others (i.e., the person is in a "persistent vegetative state") . . . and keeping this person alive costs us thousands of dollars which might otherwise be spent on free healthcare for children (or your choice of a million other "good causes") -- how should we decide whether to keep the person on life support? Should we let Terri Schiavo's family decide? Should we pray about it? Should we give the person two weeks/two months/two years (?)and if the person can't survive without life support after that amount of time, we just let him die?

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul, first anonymous here ... ethics dictate no because all human life has value, or for more clarity, all life has value. So, we avoid decisions where the guy stopping the trolley will most certainly die. However, if there's a chance he'll survive, we'll take that chance (see Trolley 2). Although, when Marc puts him on roller blades and removes the guard rails ... well, there's just something so Warner Bros. about that ... no, no, never mind. To Stephen on Superman. Now if the big guy would just really go after the first few villans hard, there'd be all this shock and awe see, and he'd have time for dinner, etc. because the potential villans would now think twice, right? Wait, now that I think about it, I've heard this somewhere before. Maybe that doesn't work. Seriously though, one of the biggest problems with mulling too deeply over what your popcorn money or car cost could have done in the world is that it tends to freeze you up, depress you to the point you feel all action is futile, and you do nothing. There's the greatest danger. Do something positive daily, let people know you through your positive actions and words. You may inspire someone who has the potential to contribute largely toward eliminating suffering in this world. The problem in our instant gratification culture is that acting in this way will not give you positive reinforcement regularly. In most cases you will never know the results of the good you do. You just have to go on faith. Finally, as for Terri and all who are in her desperate situation, why don't we let the families, their support systems of friends, pastors, rabbis, etc., and their doctors work together to come up with solutions that work in each case to the individual's and family's best interests. Those situations are terrible tragedies that bring up dire questions ... but they are questions those closest need to resolve for themselves!