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April 30, 2011



Have you tried these trolley problems?

Nicholas Smyth

I agree. Thought-experiments must be taken to illustrate ethical problems, not to "Test" for compatibility or incompatibility amongst allegedly muddled "folk" intuitions, for exactly the reasons you state here. This is why I've always used the trolley problem simply as an illustrative guide, one which clearly points out the difference between comission and omission. The point about utilitarianism is not that it gets the answer to this particular problem wrong, but rather that it cannot make sense of this distinction.

As an aside, I find the term "folk" distasteful: it has subtle class implications, according to which there are the ordinary, untutored and basically unreflective folk, and there are the philosophers who are privy to secret knowledge about them. We philosophers know that there are such things as "folk intuitions" that stand in need of justification, and the folk do not.

Nan Chen

You seem to be making a distinction between, on the one hand, the Fat Man who decides not to sacrifice himself and stands by and watches the trolley go on its path with the scenario where the Fat Man actively resists someone trying to push him. You suggest that in the later case, the Fat Man "causes" the deaths of the five down the tracks while in the former scenario he presumably do not. I don't understand this distinction. It seems to me that in *both* cases, the Fat Man causes the deaths, in some sense, of the 5 people down the tracks. By standing by and watching, that is one of the causes of their death as much as if he had actively resisted the utilitarian pusher.


Nan Chen,

My understanding of the do/allow distinction is explained
here: http://vihvelin.typepad.com/Papers/The%20Dif.pdf.

Neal Young

"Harvard psychology professor Joshua Greene, when still a graduate student, wanted to understand what was going on in people's brains when they made these moral judgments. His subjects underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, which gives real-time images of brain activity, while he asked them to make moral judgments about the dilemmas mentioned above."


Raul Miller

The issue which strikes me about this kind of hypothetical problem is how little attention is typically paid to the actual decision making process.

Here we have some obvious alternatives (get the people off of the track, use the brakes in the trolley) and the typical excuse for disallowing those alternatives is "not enough time" or maybe "the brakes are malfunctioning". So that must mean we have very little time to make the observations about this situation and then act on them.

But that kind of limitation should introduce a new issue: how can we be so sure? If we have almost no time to act, how can we be sure that our observations are accurate and complete?

If we are talking about a military approach -- we accept that things are bad and we are trying deal with that (we are trying to to minimize destruction in a bad situation) -- then we do not question the premises, we accept them at face value and go for the smallest immediate body count.

However, if we are talking about a civilian approach -- this is part of a larger situation, which needs to be dealt with -- then it's not at all clear that the situation being proposed is the situation which needs to be addressed. And, I like the cases presented on this page, because they hint at the scope of these issues. But really it goes way beyond this:

That trolley should never have been allowed to get into this situation in the first place, and neither should the people.

In other words, this could be an example of what can happen when you are taking action long after you should have gotten involved, or it could be an example of what you might think is happening when you think you know more than you really know.

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