Philosophy PhD candidate Henry Shevlin will present on the following topic:
Suppose you find yourself in a situation in which killing an innocent person is the only way to prevent many innocent people from dying. What’s the right thing to do? This question arose in The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens (1884), a famous English law case involving four men stranded in a lifeboat without food or water." (The above is from philosopher Michael Sandel's discussion of the dilemma in his Harvard course on Justice,
The question is whether the sailors were justified in killing and eating one person in the group to save the others. In their defense, the person sacrificed was ill and the other sailors were starving, near death, and had been stranded in the lifeboat for many days, with no reasonable expectation of rescue. Yet, improbably, the surviving sailors were indeed rescued, then tried and given a death sentence by the court, which was afterwards commuted to six months in prison.
What would you have done, in their place? What principle of justice, fairness, utility, desert, duty or any other consideration would help you decide? Rather than answering the question merely in the abstract, imagine that you are in the lifeboat and you don't know if you'll be the person sacrificed. How does your choice reflect on your character? Assume that there's no question of swimming to safety, as you are starving and would drown in the cold, rough, shark-infested seas before you swam the hundreds of miles to shore.
Secondly, if the group in the lifeboat decides to sacrifice one person to feed the others, how could you choose? Is it fairer to choose randomly, or is it fairer to choose by considering the characteristics of a person, such as their age, the kind of life they have led, or the degree to which others depend on them? Could you live with yourself, after deciding who would die? Unlike the actual legal case, assume everyone on your lifeboat is equally healthy, and that the boat is populated by 10 people of varying ages, sizes and genders, all of whom know one another well. It's up to your group to determine whether any of the following individual differences provide a reasonable basis for deciding which person to sacrifice, or whether all are irrelevant. Your boat holds an elderly embezzler, a Pulitzer winning writer, a nun living in a monastery, a young and violent criminal, a famous professional athlete, a cancer researcher, a homeless man, a retired philanthropist, a 7-year old child and her mother.
The two short readings (a short article by Judith Jarvis Thomson called "Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem" and a 1-page overview called "How the Trolley Problem Works") can be found at More -> Files.
Once you finish the readings, go http://www.philosophyexperiments.com/fatman and take the short questionnaire. It will give you perspective about your own intuitions about "the trolley problem."