16 November 2007

Trolley Car Moral Philosophy

Its a venerable thought experiment in moral philosophy.

An out-of-control trolley car is hurtling down its tracks. It is about at a switching point (or whatever the proper terminology is) and could follow one of two routes. Along path 1, it will crash into and certainly kill one person. Along path 2 it will crash into and certainly kill two people.

No one is near the switch except you. You have no job with the trolley company, so you have no responsibility to an employer that might complicate things, you just happen to be the only person on the spot.

Suppose, as you look closely, you discover that the switch is in the position that, unless you change it in a hurry, will mean that when the trolley car gets there it will follow path 2. Do you change it? to follow path 1 and kill only one person?

If you're a radical utilitarian, like Peter Singer, you would. One death is better (or less bad) than two deaths, and that's all that matters. On this basis, Singer maintains that the affluent effectively commit murder simply by not donating money to the starving. But most people also have a contrary intuition at work in the trolley intuition.

Most people would think that if you took action, and MOVED the switch, you would be KILLING (not just "letting die") the one person into whom the trolley would then crash. If you don't do anything to the switch, two will die -- those deaths will be accidental, and they would be the same deaths that would have occurred had you been nowhere near the switch that day.

I submit that in such a situation, you might well say "it is not for me to make this decision," and you wouldn't touch the switch at all, so as not to be guilty of kiling the one. Of course, Singer thinks you'd be guilty of killing the other two by inaction. But that's the point, isn't it? Perhaps utilitarianism is an abstract theory that overrides the normal and healthy intuitions about one's own personal responsibilities and what philosophers often call "agency."

If you don't agree, consider another runaway trolley. There's no switch this time. You're standing next to the track and a fat person is standing next to you, absorbed in his newspaper or otherwise unaware of what's going on. You're a body builder, so you figure you COULD stop the trolley and save the two people in its way further downhill, but only in one way -- by grabbing the fat person and throwing him on the track. The train will hit and kill him, but the weight of his corpse will then slow it down and let the two others survive.

The calculus in sheer numbers is the same. Killing one to save two. One death is still presumably less bad than two. Only in this case it is more obvious that you're killing that one -- you're picking him up and throwing him on the track. Do you see a problem with that? I would hope you do.

And, yes, I suppose last month's trip to San Francisco made me more hospitable to hypotheticals that involve trolley cars than I had been.


Henry said...

In real life, one could not know with certainty that the trolley would kill either one or two people, as an unexpected event could intervene that would result in no one's being killed. But, if we accept your hypothetical, then it would clearly be more moral for the bystander to pull the switch and allow the trolley to kill one person rather than two. Calling it "killinh" on the part of the bystander does not change the outcome. It would not be killing in the sense that throwing the fat person on the track would be killing. And one need not be what you call a "radical utilitarian" to take this position, as this position does not claim that a bystander who has no job with the trolley company would have a duty to act -- only that he may.

This reminds me of a real case some years ago in which a baby was born without a brain and was given two weeks to live. If he had been killed quickly, his other organs could have been transplanted into other infants and saved their lives, but, if the doctors waited for him to die, his organs would become useless for transplantation. Sadly, the law did not permit him to be killed. The most amazing comment came from Charles Krauthammer, who supported the result on the grounds that, despite not having a brain, the infant could feel pain, and therefore should be treated as a full human being, entitled to all the legal rights of an ordinary person. He must have been referring to the right to be in pain for two weeks. My point is that to distinguish between killing and allowing to die can sometimes lead to immoral results.

Christopher said...

"Calling it 'killing' on the part of the bystander does not change the outcome. It would not be killing in the sense that throwing the fat person on the track would be killing."

Why not? I see the difference in terms of visceral impact. The fat person is right next to you, you have to make contact with him to 'sacrifice' him in this way. But I don't see a principled difference between the two proposed sacrifices.

One is killing if the other is.

Henry said...

I've thought about this for a couple of days, trying to find a justification for my visceral sense, and concluded that you may be right. The closest that I can come to a principled difference is that, in shoving the fat man, you would be taking direct action to harm him, whereas in pulling the switch and saving the two people, you would not be taking direct action against the lone person who will die; he would be, if you will pardon the expression, a victim of collateral damage. I recognize that to draw this distinction may be inconsistent with my first e-mail's claim that killing and allowing to die is sometimes an unjustifiable distinction. But maybe it is not always an unjustifiable distinction.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.