The Trolley Problem

The moral philosopher Philippa Foot has died.  I have to be careful, lest my blogs turn simply into a series of obituaries for well-known philosophers.  So let me assure you that I am not going to write one now.  I never knew her and never heard her speak, not even at a conference.

(Incidentally, after the jealous reactions to my last post, where I said that I had been at a conference in Marseilles, you may rest assured that–unless I am going to Gary, Indiana or Wolverhampton Staffordshire–I will never again tell people where I am going.  The fact that my next trip will be to the Taj Mahal for a conference on the philosophy of tomb stones will be forever concealed from view.)

However, Foot is worth a bit more than a footnote, for it was she who first started us onto the moral paradox that has consumed more paper than anything since Plato in the Parmenides asked if the Forms are self-predicating.  (If they are, does that mean the Form of Dirt is dirty, in which case how can this Form be pure and eternal?  If they are not, then what is the relationship between the Form of Dirt and dirty things in this world?  It cannot be, as it is supposed to be, a model or a template.)

The moral paradox to which I am referring is the so-called “Trolley Problem.”  Suppose you are down a mine and five people are standing on the track.  You see a trolley laden with coal coming down the track, you cannot warn the people, but you can flip a switch that will divert the trolley onto a side line.  Unfortunately one person is standing on this line.  What should you do (morally, that is).

Basically, this problem is supposed to sort out the differences between utilitarians and Kantians, the former thinking you should maximize happiness and the latter thinking you should treat people as ends and not as means.  From a utilitarian viewpoint, flip the switch.  Five lives for one.  From a Kantian viewpoint, don’t flip the switch.  You would be treating that single person as a means for the benefits of the five.

Now add a second part to the problem.  Suppose, instead of a switch, you are standing next to a fat man.  You could push him onto the track, and although he would be squashed, the trolley would stop and the five would be saved.  Would you, should you, do so?  (Your victim has to be a fatty.  If a normal person would do, then morally one might well argue that the right thing to do is to jump yourself.  The point has to be that your jumping would not do the trick, but pushing him would.)

What is interesting is that folk who are quite prepared to flip the switch are often much less prepared to push the man.  Why should this be so?  At this point, philosophers often get into convoluted arguments about how there is a difference between merely saving people (you are just flipping the switch to save the five and the unfortunate consequences for the one are not your fault) and hurting people even though there are good ends for others (you are deliberately pushing).  But I am not sure that any of this is terribly convincing.

What is really exciting is how neuroscientists have studied the brain making decisions in these cases, finding that different parts are used to make different decisions.  My reading (I claim no originality) is that this all tells us something about biology and our past.  On the one hand, natural selection favored reasoning abilities and being able to calculate ends and decide on options.  On the other hand, natural selection favored being nice to your neighbors, because then they are much more likely to be nice to you.  In the theoretical case, flipping the switch makes good evolutionary sense.  In the practical case, not pushing your neighbor makes good evolutionary sense.  The fact that these decisions do not always sit comfortably together and thus upset moral philosophers is not exactly something over which natural selection is going to lose a lot of sleep.

One final point.  I suspect that most full-time moral philosophers will disagree with what I have said.  But what is interesting is that most will not fault me for trying to understand in terms of evolution.  They will just think that I am wrong.  This in itself is a sea change from the days when people like Philippa Foot were in full flight.  Thirty or 40 years ago, to bring evolution to bear on ethics was the equivalent of making a bad smell at a vicarage tea party.  Not just wrong, but socially gross.  I don’t know how much people like her were responsible for the change in attitude, but I am happy to hand out credit and to say how happy I am that the work of moral philosophers in my academic lifetime has made it possible for people like me who think that nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution to join in the discussion.

(In arguing for the relevance of evolution I am quoting and extending the eminent evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky.  He thought nothing made sense in biology except in the light of evolution.  I think nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution, period.)

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