Trolley dilemmas Part 1

The tendency to rely on feelings rather than reason as a moral guide is a particularly depressing facet of human nature. There is the famous moral dilemma of the trolley:

A runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who will definitely be killed unless you, a bystander, flip a switch which will divert it on to another track, where it will kill one person. Should you flip the switch?

To which most people answer in the affirmative. There is the fat man variation:

The runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track where it will kill five people. You are standing on a bridge above the track… Next to you, a fat man is standing on the very edge of the bridge. He would certainly block the trolley, although he would undoubtedly die from the impact. A small nudge and he would fall right onto the track below. No one would ever know. Should you push him?

To which most people, including the inventor of the scenario, answer in the negative. The consequences of both proposed actions in the two thought experiments are the same. Either one person dies, or else five do. So repulsive is the feeling of directly causing a death that most people would prefer to let the greater tragedy occur; five preventable deaths passively allowed bother us less than one death actively caused. The element of direct causation, the only thing that distinguishes the latter proposed action from the former, is of course utterly irrelevant to the dead people.

(If you don’t believe most people really do give the wrong answers to these tests, and are often proud of the fact, read some of the reader responses to the BBC News article)

There is a conclusion to be had here.

1. All other factors the same, the deaths of 5 human beings is a greater evil than the death of 1 human being.
2. The above moral dilemma demonstrates that most people if put in such a situation would choose the greater evil.
3. Therefore, most people are evil.

I’m not joking. Not even 50% joking. Maybe 25% joking. The willful irrationality of man truly is depressing. When will we learn to properly distrust our fweewings when our highly developed faculties of reason are up to the task?

The even more depressing thought — faculties of reason in most of us probably are NOT up to the task.

Too depressing, too depressing. I’ll continue this another day. What would make me fweel better now would be the sense of moral accomplishment I could get from pushing a fat man in front of a trolley in order to save some lives (in a way that flipping a switch to save some lives would not). Failing that, chocolate.

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6 responses to “Trolley dilemmas Part 1

  1. Throwing fat people in front of trolleys would be a pretty cool video game theme. It could be called “Kill, kill, kill went the trolley!” It could even teach people about proper trolley ethics.

    Either that or a Very Special episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood where Henrietta Pussycat pushes King Friday in front of Trolley in order to save Lady Elaine Fairchilde and Daniel Striped Tiger.

  2. You should also read about the Milgram experiment.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

  3. Stephen, that would be a very special episode indeed.

    Randy, yep the Milgram experiment is famous.

  4. Will the fat man have enough mass to actually stop or divert the train?

    If so, it must be one of those trains under my Christmas tree. But, anyhoo, at least there will be some carbon offsets to be gained by killing the fat guy.

  5. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Penates.

  6. My points are almost designed to be missed 🙂

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