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THE TROLLEY PROBLEM: MORAL REASONING OR INSTINCT?

  • Nov 13, 2013 · 7:00 PM

General Problem:  There is a runaway trolley barreling 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 the tracks but next to a lever.  If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different track.  Unfortunately, you notice that there is someone walking along this other track, wearing headphones and unlikely to hear the trolley should you direct it his way.  You have two options: (1) Do nothing and let the trolley kill the 5 people.  (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it is likely to kill the one person.


The Footbridge Problem:  Same basic problem as before except that now you are on a footbridge that passes over the tracks.  You are standing next to a very large man.  You can push the man off the bridge, and his body fall onto the tracks and stop the trolley from killing the 5 people, but will kill the individual you pushed off the footbridge.


Footbridge Problem 2:  Same as Problem 1 except that now the man is standing on top of a trapdoor and all you have to do is pull a lever to send the man down onto the tracks, again saving 5 but killing 1.


Proposed solutions:

1. Kant's deontological solution argues that morality is about the rights and duties individuals have.  That is, you shouldn't use humans as a means to an end.  Certain lines thus should not 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 thus killing one person but saving 5 individuals seems to be one of those 'hard choices'.


Brief analysis:

Utilitarianism is viewed as a consequentialist theory.  In all these problems the consequences of taking action have the same consequence: one dead, 5 saved.  Indeed 88% of people surveyed would pull the switch, but only 12% would push the 'large man' off the bridge.  Adding the trapdoor option increased that number to 24%.  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 prompted him to investigate the theory that morality was instinctual rather than rational; that somehow our genetic programming had instilled in us some disposition for "greater good for the greatest number" behavior.  The studies are still ongoing, but fMRI studies are showing 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 difference in the number saved versus the number killed increases, there is less resistance to taking either action.  That is if the difference is 'save one-kill one', the likelihood of taking action is negligible, but zooms to 88% at 'save 5-kill 1'.  Paradoxically, if the number of potential agents who could take some action increases, the likelihood of anyone taking said action decreases.  That is, if there are 10 people walking along the tracks and spot the developing situation, there is less likelihood that someone will take action.


For discussion:  All these studies have proven quite interesting and revealing.  Yet, the basic question remains: if you were faced with this scenario, what choice would you make?  Why?  Do you see a difference in the three scenarios or do you hold to a utilitarian position that they are all the same since they save 5 individuals?  What about the two footbridge problems?  Do you think the addition of a trapdoor would change your behavior?  Why? Do you feel that ones approach to problems like these should be founded on some 'rule-based' ethics or some utilitarian/consequential ethics?  Finally, do you think morality is instinctual or culturally driven?


For your reading pleasure:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

http://people.howstuffworks.com/trolley-problem.htm/printable

http://discovermagazine.com/2011/jul-aug/12-vexing-mental-conflict-called-morality

http://cognitivephilosophy.net/ethics/the-neuroscience-of-philosophical-hypotheticals

  



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  • Gino M.

    Outstanding! See my post.

    November 14, 2013

  • Gino M.

    The meeting was an outstanding discussion on how we make life threatening decisions. Many different points of view. I used the computer to demonstrate the moral thinking process. This is my second Socrates meetup and I recommend it to any philosophical thinking person. These meetups are lead by well educated intellectuals and attended by simiiar knowledgeable adults. Five Star.

    November 14, 2013

  • Marian

    Great discussion lead by knowledgeable moderator.

    ble moderator

    November 14, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Last minute cancel- sad to miss it! One of my favorite topics.

    November 13, 2013

  • Marian

    These questions have been keeping me awake for years. Look forward to meeting you.

    November 12, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Great topic! Thanks in advance for letting me join in!

    November 7, 2013

  • Joel B.

    both

    November 7, 2013

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