Wednesday, March 4, 2009


In philosophy club on Monday we discussed the trolley problem and what course of action you would pursue and why. For those of you unfamiliar with this famous problem of applied ethics, there are two ways to frame the question:

Trolley A

You are standing by a railway line when you see a train hurtling towards you, out of control; the brakes have failed. In its path are five people tied to the tracks. Fortunately, the runaway train is approaching a junction with a side spur. If you flip a switch you can redirect the train onto this spur, saving five lives. That’s the good news. The not-quite-so-good news is that another person is tied down on the side spur of the track. Still, the decision’s easy, right? By altering the train’s direction only one life will be lost rather than five.

Trolley B

This time you’re on a footbridge overlooking the railway track. You see the train hurtling towards you and five people tied to the rails. Can they be saved? Again, the moral philosopher has arranged it so they can. There’s an obese man leaning over the footbridge. If you were to push him he would tumble over and squelch onto the track. He’s so fat that his bulk would bring the train—Trolley B—to a juddering halt. Sadly, the process would kill the fat man. But it would save the other five people. Should you shove him over?

In philosophy club, we discussed Trolley B. The majority of you said that you would push the fat man, without question. Some of you, however, had more difficulty in coming up with an answer. One reason why it is hard to find a way out of this ethical dilemma could be the framing of the question itself, as Jerome pointed out. Would you make the same decision in both scenarios? Rationally, both scenarios involved killing 1 or 5 people. Yet, the idea of pushing someone to their death and pulling a lever to cause a death seem intuitively different.

In an interesting article in this month's issue of Prospect Magazine, David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton discuss the new trend of "x-phi" or experimental philosophy's approach to the Trolley Problem. When I was an undergraduate this program was developing at Washington University under the moniker of the Philosophy and Neuroscience and Psychology Program.

One assumption x-philosophers are challenging is the idea that intuitions are consistent across the board:

The BBC conducted an online poll in which 65,000 people took part. Nearly four out of five agreed that Trolley A should be diverted. Only one in four thought that the fat man should be shoved over the footbridge. (Nobody has yet looked for a link with the fact that nearly one in four Britons are obese.)


Brain scans allegedly indicate that when people are confronted with Trolley A, the part of the brain linked to cognition and reasoning lights up; whereas with Trolley B, people seem to use a section linked to emotion. The few people who are prepared to use the fat man as a buffer take longer to respond than those aren’t, perhaps because they experience the emotional impulse and then reason their way out of it. Other experiments suggest people who have sustained damage to the prefrontal cortex, which is thought to generate various emotions, are far more likely than the rest of us to favour sacrificing the fat man.

The critics of experimental philosophy are many. Critics question the localizing of thought through MRI, the crudeness of the the technology, and even the entire idea of experimental philosophy. Peter Singer, a strong critic of x-phi thinks reason should supersede our uneasiness at pushing the fat man onto the tracks.

In our discussion Rob touched upon a critique that hits both sides of the x-phi argument concerning the use of hypotheticals: they are so far-fetched that they don't replicate the true experience of making the decision.

Real world trolley experiences are different from those experienced while sitting in an MRI machine being asked whether you would push the fat man or a lever. The experimental philosophers fall prey to skewed data.

By isolating ethical decisions from context, armchair philosophers (like Singer) ignore the emotional context of ethical dilemmas and assume that reason should supersede.

Both camps want a black and white answer when the question is gray. Can we derive an "ought" out of this dilemma?



Hanno said...

Kudos for the title.

Josh said...

It's all downhill from there.

ce said...

One assumption x-philosophers are challenging is the idea that intuitions are consistent across the board:

Challenging? It needs challenging? A casual conversation shows that intuitions are not consistent across the board. This isn't even taking into account different cultures and religious backgrounds, etc.

Whether or not emotions play a role seems abysmally banal even as a question. Of course they play a role. When have emotions not been able to skew human behavior and responses?

But none of this even touches on the really important questions. Why the greater hesitation when it involves pushing the man? Are responses different when the man is not a stranger? A brother? Spouse? What rationale is given to justify the action? Why is pulling a lever easier or more acceptable? This is just the tip of the Martian mountain. The intuitions just give us a starting point for the discussion. So what if they're different? That just means we have more discussions to be had.

Josh said...

Do we have more discussion? Or do we have more experiments? The two are not mutually exclusive, but there isn't an MRI machine in the philosophy offices at McNeese (at least the last time I checked) just several gallons of water!