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Would You Kill The Fat Man?

The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us About Right and Wrong

David Edmonds

Basic 'Trolley Problem': out-of-control trolley hurtling towards 5 people trapped on the line. There is a bridge over the line, and the Fat Man is standing on the bridge. There is no time to do anything except push the Fat man onto the tracks. he will die, but you will save the lives of the other five.

Do you push him?

Variation called 'Spur': this time you don't have to push him, you just have to throw a switch which will turn the trolley onto a spur line where the Fat Man is trapped. Again, he dies to save the five, but this time you don't have to physically touch him.

People happier throwing the switch, which is indirect, than pushing the guy off the bridge.

You have a limited quantity of a life-saving drug. You can either save one person who needs a huge dose, or five people who need a dose one-fifth the size. Fairly obvious choice.

OK so how about similar problem: 5 people will die in 12 hours unless they get transplants of various organs. A healthy young man who happens to have exactly the right tissue match, walks into the hospital to visit one of the patients. Can you justify killing him to save the five who need organ transplants?

Two business scenarios. 1) Boss briefed on a project. It will make money for the company, but will harm the environment. He says, "I just want to make a profit; I don't care about the rest"and authorises the project Sure enough the environment suffers. 2) Boss briefed on a project. It will make money for the company, and it's also going to have a beneficial effect on the environment. He says, "I just want to make a profit; I don't care about the rest" and authorises the project. Sure enough there is a beneficial effect on the environment. When asked about first scenario, most people say the boss intended to harm the environment. But in the second scenario, did he intend to help the environment? Most people say no. Seems to indicate that our ideas of intention are bound up with moral judgements. Brit philosopher Jeremy Bentham maintained that what mattered was how much pleasure an action produced and how much pain it avoided. The greatest happiness of the greatest number was his measure of all things. What mattered about an action were its consequences. (Bentham coined many new words - international, codification, maximise and minimize, but he was a very difficult read.)

Consequences - even if it were the case that a doctor could murder one healthy young man to save five dying patients, this would be more than offset by the anxiety and panic this would provoke (hospital patients certainly get many visitors!).

But there's a problem with this. Say you arrive at a remote village (Afghanistan somewhere like that) where local law is all that counts. They have suffered bandit attacks and the local sheriff has rounded up 20 guys from another tribe who he proposes to shoot. But, as a special favour, he will let 19 of them off if you shoot one of them. Greatest good, right? But if you do it, you will be the one doing the killing, and you will have the blame (and the guilt).

Manipulating Spur: Mark can either throw the switch and kill one man, or do nothing and five will die. Then he recognizes the man as someone he hates passionately. Does he have the right to throw the switch? Most people say it's not, despite previously agreeing to the switch when all unnamed people.

Cannibalism. Shipwrecked crew in lifeboat, everybody near death. They kill the cabin boy, drink his blood and eat his flesh, and are rescued (actual event July 1884, Stephen Dudley killed Richard Parker). But the cabin boy would have died anyway; his death allowed the others to survive. (They wound up getting 6 months jail - British prosecuting office felt they had to try him because otherwise every captain will think he has the right to eat his cabin boy when he runs low on provisions.)

Devout Catholics refused to authorize an operation to separate siamese twin babies - both would die without surgery, but at best only one would live. Parents believed it wrong to chose for one to die. Doctors went to court and got right to go ahead without consent (and parents later said they were glad to have the one who survived).

Our ethical behaviour is influenced by irrational factors. You're more likely to help a stranger if you've just found a coin on the path. More likely to be generous outside a bakery smelling fresh bread. We are more judgemental at a messy desk than a tidy one. And scarily, judges are harder on paroling prisoners the longer it is since they've had a snack.

Implies that perhaps we should be shaping conditions rather than character. If you want people to be helpful, it turns out that having some little nice things happen to them is much better than spending a huge effort trying to change their character.

We react (emotionally) first, and then call up Reason to justify the choice. Reason pops in at the very end, having done none of the work, and then claims all the credit.

Mother-in-law dislikes her d-i-l because thinks she's impulsive and rude. But later, on careful reflection, she decides that she is spontaneous, not undignified. And of course, as a result of this change of perspective, she acts differently towards her d-i-l. But this comes after the 'seeing' and it's the seeing correctly that is where the hard moral work is done.

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