Wednesday, July 15, 2015

When Solving the Trolley Problem- I Choose Not To

Let us imagine there is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Up ahead on the tracks there are five people tied up and unable to move, and the trolley is headed straight toward them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. The other choice would be to pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the correct choice?

Left: Fat Man Problem /Right: Original Trolley Problem
I've proposed the trolley problem scenario in many philosophy and political science classes, and for most people the correct choice would be to intervene, pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the other side, thus killing one person. Their reasoning lies with their belief in the normative ethics theory of utilitarianism, where moral actions are determined by maximizing utility. Although utility mean many things, here most people describe it as maximizing happiness. If they save the five their will be a greater chance of lack of suffering. As for the one person, well tough luck on being happy.

Suddenly once we add familial variables to the trolley problem utilitarianism dissolves, and what are left are reasons for choices which are wholly subjective. For example, if we describe the one person as their loved one, spouse, or family member, then pulling the lever to save the five vague persons seems to not matter. They want to maximize the happiness of either themselves and/or their loved one, while the five, well what about the five? They are just five people of whom remain nameless and begin to look unfavorable, unless of course you prefer to stick by the principles of utilitarianism, or if you just so happen to not have a love one.

Other variations of the trolley problem, such as the fat man problem, also leave students having mixed reactions. The fat man problem is as follows: a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You're on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? (The last question is usually inferred to be would it be correct to proceed?) In this case most students will not push the fat man because they would be directly killing someone instead of just pulling a lever and passively killing one person (who may or may not be fat). The class did not want to physically push and kill anyone to save the five, due to their feeling that if they engaged in this direct murder the action would be immoral and/or unethical. I highly doubt if the people tied up on the tracks below were loved ones that the life of the fat man would matter at all, but let's move on.

How do I answer the original trolley problem? Easy, I don't. It is a trick, and a somewhat cruel one at that (at least from my perspective). Firstly, the situation is purposefully vague. We don't know how or why there are people on the track to begin with. It is difficult to make such a specific and life altering decision, if we don't know why or how the situation began in the first place. Ignoring this point, however, we find my second issue, which lies with the word "correct." The question assumes there is a correct choice, when in my mind there never was. I say this because I've sat next to eager students, of whom strongly state that they would pull the lever because it is truly the correct choice. Does correct mean morally correct or ethically correct? Morality implies absolutism (within a set of universal principles) while ethics imply guidelines which are determined by a specific society. If a society favors saving one instead of saving five, then that would essentially be the correct ethical choice. As for moral absolutism, since students usually change their answer when we define the one person as a family member, I don't believe they are using an absolutist definition of "correct." So what exactly are these students thinking?

My guess is that they are engaging in consequentialism, where the moral action is one that will produce the good outcome. This theory can be summed up in it's extreme form by the phrase, "the ends justify the means." As for the definition of "good," since we now live in a world that supports (in many instances) the use of relativism as a means for determining the good. Allowing the good to be whatever you want it to be.

As for myself, if I was tied up to a trolley track and had to answer the question I would answer it by saying it would not matter, no action would be morally superior. If you're wondering if I'm a deontology (one who believes strongly in absolutism even when dealing with broad situations), don't worry I'm not. Just to set the record straight I would not kill the five to save the one (regardless of loved one because let's face it I'm too evil to have any), but I also would not say I acted truly correct, because I would have merely acted ethically or the way society would usually act, not morally. Most people within our society would save the five, but it should not be viewed as a correct action, especially one that someone is selfishly proud of. Why? Yes, you saved people, but did you do so for their happiness, or for your own? Regardless of my choice, I'm more worried with character or the soul of those students who proclaim their choice was benevolent, when in my mind killing the one so eagerly should be considered malevolent. Looking at the student's this way makes me wonder if the correct action is actually a selfish action of someone who has the power to end a life as well as save lives. The scenario presents no way in which you actually risk anything, other than what I view as your character or virtue, however students will not explain it that way. They merely state that it would be the correct action to take according to what they deem is "good."

Lastly, what is important to understand by this problem is that everyone who answers wants their answer to be correct from either a moral or ethical standpoint. It seems as though humans have an urge to make every action a moral action, regardless if that action has nothing at all to do with morality. This in my view is what makes humans so remarkable. Every action we engage in must be in such a way that reveals a moral purpose or catalyst. We can see that here with our examination of the trolley problem. If you would like to see how a feminist answers this problem (hint: they don't) then watch my video on the feminist republic.

1 comment:

  1. The case for letting the five people die:

    1. The world is overpopulated.
    2. How do you know they're not five murderers who may go on to kill more people?
    3. Death by trolley may be preferable to a slow death by disease or old age.

    ~Contrarian ethics~