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November 25, 2008

The Trolley Problem

From Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer:

["S]ay a streetcar is out of control, rushing along its tracks. And say there are five people stuck on those tracks, unable to get away in time -- if the train hits, it'll kill them all. But you happen to be watching all this from a bridge over the tracks, and on the bridge are the switching controls, including a lever that if you pull it will cause the streetcar to be diverted to another track, off to the left, missing the five people. What do you do?"

"Pull the lever of course," he said ...

"That's what almost everyone says ..." [she said] "Most people feel a moral obligation to intervene in situations where human life is at risk. Oh, but I forgot to tell you one thing. There's a really big guy stuck on the other track. If you divert the streetcar, he'll be killed. Now what do you do?"

... "Well, um, I'd -- I guess I'd still pull the lever."

... "That's what most people say. Why?"

"Because only one person dies rather than five."

He could hear in her voice that she was smiling. "A Trekker to the core. 'The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.' No wonder that's what Mr. Spock believes.; it's clearly the product of rational thinking. Now what about this? Say there's no second track. And say instead of being the one hapless fellow stuck on the left, the big guy isn't stuck at all. Instead he's standing right next to you on the bridge. You know for a fact that if you push him off so that he falls in front of the streetcar, hitting him will be enough to make it stop before it hits the five other people. But you yourself are a little guy. The streetcar wouldn't be stopped by hitting you, so there's no point in jumping yourself, but it'll definitely be stopped by hitting this big fellow. Now what do you do?"

"Nothing."

[He] could feel her head nodding. "Again, that's what most people say -- they wouldn't do a thing. But why not?"

"Because, um, because it's wrong to ... well, ah..." He frowned, opened his mouth to try again, but then closed it.

"See?" [she] said. "They're comparable situations. In both scenarios you choose to have one guy die--the same guy, in fact, to save five others. But in the first, you do it by throwing a lever. In the second, you actually push the guy to his death. The rational question is exactly the same. But the second scenario feels differently emotionally. For most people, what was judged right in the first scenario is judged wrong in the second."

Interesting conversation regarding the "emotional ethical response" and the "logical ethical response." One could argue that proximity to the "big guy" creates a kind of tenuous bond between him and the person either pushing him off or pulling the lever. The greater the distance the lesser the bond and the easier the decision becomes.

Posted by snackeru at November 25, 2008 8:07 AM

Comments

Proximity definitely has something to do with it but I also think deniability does too.

If you throw a switch to save 5 people but it kills one other, you can say to yourself, I didn't notice that other guy (even if you did) or you hope he'll notice and get out of the way at the last moment or maybe even warm him to safety. If you toss a guy over a bridge to save 5 others it's pretty hard to deny the act.

Posted by: Freealonzo at November 25, 2008 4:23 PM

Yes! Excellent point Free. Deniability is definitely a part of the decision. I wonder, though, if it would still be that way if you actually had someone else watching you as you pulled the lever. I would think that pulling the lever would still be easy in that case, much easier than pushing the big guy off.

Posted by: Shane at November 25, 2008 4:34 PM

Isn't there a similar "riddle" like this having to do with a ship moving toward a drawbridge and your only son stuck in the gears? You either have to raise the drawbridge and kill your son or save your son and allow the entire ship to perish?

Posted by: Derek at November 25, 2008 4:51 PM

And thank you so much Shane for showing the pictures of the arches. I am STOKED for the new stadium next year...mostly to get out of the Metrodome because we have had some rough times there. But, also to have a place to call our own. Once this is completed, along with the new baseball stadium, the University of Minnesota will have the finest collection of sports facilities in America, bar none. Nothing can touch us. Other schools may have a better stadium, but when you consider that we will have one of the finest, if not THE finest football stadium, a brand new baseball stadium, Williams Arena (I don't even need to say more about that place) as well as Mariucci, no other school can compare.

Posted by: Derek at November 25, 2008 4:54 PM

You bet Derek. And I agree, the U of M will have some fine facilities when this is all said and done.

Ski-U-Mah!

Posted by: Shane at November 26, 2008 9:12 AM

One problem I have with the example is that if I'm not big enough to stop the trolley and the big guy next to me is, how can I possibly get him over a railing of the bridge?

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at November 28, 2008 11:00 AM

I just love to go to baseball games and watch the drugged up players run around on the field.

It is good to take kids to see these games so they too know that when they are adults they to can still play childrens games and earn millions if they are willing to do drugs.

Posted by: candy at January 1, 2009 9:25 AM

I just love to go to baseball games and watch the drugged up players run around on the field.

It is good to take kids to see these games so they too know that when they are adults they to can still play childrens games and earn millions if they are willing to do drugs.

Posted by: candy at January 1, 2009 9:26 AM

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