16 November 2007
Trolley Car 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.
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.