The general problem: There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks.  Ahead, on the tracks, there are 5 people tied up and unable to move.  The trolley is headed straight for them.  You are standing some distance off in the the train yard, next to a lever.  If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks.  Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track.  You have two options: (1) Do nothing and the trolley kills the 5 people.  (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill the one person.

The Footbridge Problem:  Same basic problem set-up except that now you are on a footbridge and standing next to "an extremely large man".  You can push the man off the bridge, and his body will stop the trolley from killing the 5 men, but in the process will kill this man.

Footbridge Problem 2:  Same set-up as above only now the other man is standing on top of a trapdoor and all you have to do is pull a lever to release the door and send the man onto the tracks to stop the trolley. 

Proposed solutions:

1.  Kant's deontological solution argues that morality is about the rights and duties individuals have and certain lines that cannot be crossed.  Pushing the man from the footbridge seems to cross one of those lines.

2.  Mill's utilitarianism says that morality faces hard choices that must be made to serve the 'greater good'.  Flipping the switch seems to be one of those choices.

Brief analysis:

Utilitarianism is viewed as a consequentialist theory.  It would seem that all three examples of the problem achieve the same consequence: one dead, 5 saved.  Yet, 88% of the people surveyed would pull the switch, but only 12% would push the 'fat man' off the bridge.  Then, further studies found that 60% would pull the lever that opens the trapdoor.  Why the difference in behavior?

John Mikhail, a philosopher and lawyer, did a study with 8 year olds and found that they also would throw the switch to save the 5.  This information was utilized to perform further studies to test the notion that morality was instinctual rather than rational.  The studies are still ongoing, but one outcome to date is that throwing the switch activates different portions of the brain (the more 'rational' sections) than pushing the man off the bridge (the more emotional sections).  To complicate analysis further, it has also been found that as the number of individuals involved increases, there is less resistance to taking either action.  It is theorized that this is an indication that morality is instinctual because in earlier environments we lived with a limited number of people and those not in our band were outsiders, thus their death was inconsequential. 


If you were faced with this scenario, what choice would you make?  Why?  Do you see a difference in the two basic scenarios?  If so, what difference do you see?  What makes the trapdoor scenario different?  Or is it perhaps just a statistical fluke?  Do you see benefits to a 'rule based' ethics or a consequential ethics?  Why?  Do you think morality is instinctual or culturally driven?

For your reading pleasure:



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  • A former member
    A former member

    Great area of concentration and topic(s) for group discussion. Highly enjoyable dialogue as usual.

    November 3, 2013

  • Dorothy

    Sorry, I can't be there, I'm tied up.

    November 2, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Synchronistically (I know you don't believe in synchronicity, John) I am reading "The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum" by Thomas Cathcart

    Sorry I won’t be there as I will be at a wedding In New York. Weddings make so sad. I always feel so sorry for the groom.

    October 31, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      My empirical self is skeptical, but my transcendental self ???

      October 31, 2013

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