Sunday, October 10, 2010

Off the Rails

Several lifetimes ago, so deep in the musty past that the first personal computers were nearly a decade away, I took my first college philosophy class.

And my last.

I remember the course description being fascinating, but the actuality a merciless immersion in convoluted writing* and question begging untainted by reality.

Or perhaps it was just over my head.

Moral philosophers have attempted to highlight how people view as quite different moral problems that are, in terms of their consequences, identical. Their preferred hypothetical is the trolley problem, consisting of two situations, Spur and Fat Man:

In Spur, an out-of-control trolley—or train—is hurtling towards five people on the track, who face certain death. You are nearby and, by turning a switch, could send the trolley onto a spur and save their lives. But one man is chained to the spur and would be killed if the trolley is diverted. Should you flick the switch?
In Fat Man, the same trolley is about to kill five people. This time, you are on a footbridge overlooking the track, next to a fat man. If you were to push him off the bridge onto the track his bulk would stop the trolley and save the lives of those five people—but kill him. Do you push him?

Study after study has shown that people will sacrifice the spur man but not the fat man. Yet in both cases, one person is killed to save five others. What, then, is the relevant ethical distinction between them? This question has spawned a thriving academic mini-industry, called trolleyology.

Trolleyology encapsulates the deepest tensions in our moral outlook. To tease out our moral intuitions, philosophers have come up with ever more ingenious scenarios. The trolley is usually racing towards five unfortunates and the reader is presented with various means to rescue them at the cost of another life, involving props such as obese gentlemen, footbridges, trapdoors and lazy Susans. Some of the examples are so complex that, in the words of one exasperated philosopher, this branch of ethics “makes the Talmud look like Cliffs Notes [a US brand of study guides].” But at its root the trolley problem is a philosophical detective story, attracting some of the smartest minds in moral philosophy.

Perhaps this whole philosophy thing remains well above my easily perplexed cranium, but doesn't Spur differ from Fat Man in a very significant respect that doesn't involve body count?

*In non-fiction writing, the moral imperative is clarity. Perhaps Philosophy's lack thereof suggests notting the non.


Blogger Susan's Husband said...


October 10, 2010 7:59 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Yes, I'd say it does.

It is also pointless in that it contemplates a situation that no one is ever going to have to face. We little moral entrepreneurs used to present these kinds of questions to the priest in school, but the real world presents difficulties quite enough without trying to imagine impossible ones.

Besides, never mind what the respondents say they would do, you never know what they would do until you make them do it.

On Postsecrets today, somebody wrote that her (I imagine) secret is that she would kill and eat a human before she would kill and eat her dog.

That, at least, is closer to the realm of real life.

October 10, 2010 8:09 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

What respect? It is not clear to me.

Harry - the point of the trolley cases is not to be realistic. They aren't training! The point is to try and discover if there are underlying rules that we use for making moral choices and to what extent they are common across different cultures etc.

I think they work rather well. But then my first degree was in philosophy (a very long time ago)

October 11, 2010 12:23 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Agency. In the spur case, you are selecting between two bad outcomes of people already involved. In the second case it is by your agency that the fat man becomes involved. It's the equivalent to being the guy who tied the spur man to the tracks who (IMHO) obviously has greater guilt than the person who switches the track.

One might also argue whether you jumping would save the people in the second scenario, in which case it's not "him or them" but "him or me". Again, not an equivalent situation.

October 11, 2010 6:27 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Yes I thought that initially too, SH, but I suppose from the spur guy's POV you've made an active decision to kill him when, without your intervention, he would have survived. He could therefore complain as much as the Fat Man.

October 11, 2010 6:38 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

And so the debate starts - which is the point of the examples. Among other things, it sharply points up the difference between a consequentialist view of morality (what matters is the results) and a deontological view (what matters is the state of mind of the agent). As most people think you should act on Spur but not not on Fat Man - it suggests that in fact most people are not complete consequentialists.

Another well-known example (call it loop):

Modify the spur example so that it is a loop line which will rejoin the main line before the five people on the track. So if there is nothing on the loop line the hikers will still die. However, the fat man is walking along the loop and he is sufficiently heavy to stop the trolley.

Most people agree that it is right to switch the points and kill the fat man in this case, but not in the original fat man case. But it is very subtle difference between this and the fat man case and does not seem to be down to agency.

October 11, 2010 7:22 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...


Spur guy should complain about whoever tied him to the tracks. You don't complain about the bus driver who runs you over after someone else pushes you in front of the bus.


Your internal state is a consequence. The idea that your actions and decisions do not have personal consequences is one of the more laughable aspects of modern philosophy. Every time you make a decision, every time you act, you change yourself. Why do you think consequentialism concerns only effects on others, but not on one's self?

One might (as I do) take the further step that every action and decision also has consequences for the societal moral order and one must those consequences as well.

October 11, 2010 7:46 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

" turning a switch... but one man..."

Oh. In the version I heard it was a lever, not a switch, and the man was named Nate. The moral was thus "better Nate than lever." :-) I just love philosophical humor (or humour for Brit).

October 11, 2010 7:53 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

On a more serious note, I found this twist on the trolley story and its results fascinating:

"Half of the participants received a version of the scenario where the agent could choose to sacrifice an individual named “Tyrone Payton” to save 100 members of the New York Philharmonic, and the other half received a version where the agent could choose to sacrifice “Chip Ellsworth III” to save 100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra. In both scenarios the individual decides to throw the person onto the trolley tracks. [...]

"While we did not provide specific information about the race of the individuals in the scenario, we reasoned that Chip and Tyrone were stereotypically associated with White American and Black American individuals respectively, and that the New York Philharmonic would be assumed to be majority White, and the Harlem Jazz Orchestra would be assumed to be majority Black. [...]

"Turned out the racial identities did indeed, ah, color peoples’ judgments, but it colored them differently depending on their political bent. Pizarro, who describes himself as a person who “would probably be graded a liberal on tests,” roughly expected that liberals would be more consistent. Yet liberals proved just as prejudiced here as conservatives were, but in reverse: While self-described conservatives more readily accepted the sacrifice of Tyrone than they did killing Chip, the liberals were easier about seeing Chip sacrificed than Tyrone. [...]

"If you’re wondering whether this is just because conservatives are racist—well, it may well be that conservatives are more racist. But it appears in these studies that the effect is driven [primarily] by liberals saying that they’re more likely to agree with pushing the white man and [more likely to] disagree with pushing the black man.

So we used to refer to this as the “kill whitey” study.

If you go to the study itself, conservatives are very close to colorblind in that they'd be equally likely to sacrifice Chip and Tyrone, whereas liberals are quite prejudiced and much more likely to sacrifice Chip:

"The tendency to view Chip’s life in more consequentialist terms than Tyrone’s was limited to political liberals. Political conservatives showed no hint of this effect."

We can only guess as to why the Wired article implies that conservatives are also prejudiced when the underlying paper specifically claims the opposite.

October 11, 2010 8:13 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 11, 2010 8:14 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Susan's husband

Your internal state is a consequence. The idea that your actions and decisions do not have personal consequences is one of the more laughable aspects of modern philosophy. Every time you make a decision, every time you act, you change yourself. Why do you think consequentialism concerns only effects on others, but not on one's self?

1) The deontological view of ethics goes back at least to Kant if not earlier.

2) It does not deny that your actions have no internal consequences. There is no ethical theory I am aware of that makes this bizarre claim.

Otherwise you are doing great!

October 11, 2010 8:25 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Spur guy should complain about whoever tied him to the tracks.

Of course, but surely besides the point of the exercise, which is to determine in what sense the Fat and Spur guys are different; or rather, why most of us instinctively think they are different.

October 11, 2010 8:53 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Though there again, I suppose it's not "beside the point" if you include that much background into the decision. The question therefore is, should you, and if so, why?

This is why it's produced a great deal of philosophical twaddle, I presume.

October 11, 2010 8:57 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Frank;

"It does not deny that your actions have no internal consequences. There is no ethical theory I am aware of that makes this bizarre claim."

I think it's a part of whatever ethical theory on which you based this statement — "the difference between a consequentialist view of morality (what matters is the results) and a deontological view (what matters is the state of mind of the agent)."

My point is that this is a false dichotomy that only makes sense if you ignore the connection between state of mind and results.


Yes, that's my point. I would say it matters because whether you tied him to the tracks or someone else did ripples in to the effects of your action with regard to the switch. Which is the same reason it matters whether a bus driver swerved in to hit you, or someone pushed you in front of the bus. It's sins of omission vs. commission which (to me) have different moral weights.

October 11, 2010 10:03 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I guess SH and I stopped agreeing after 'yes.'

Let's reframe the question in the real world: Free actors, call them mortgage bankers, are recklessly writing mortgages which cannot be repaid, which will crash the economy and cost tens of millions of people who were not in the market for a mortgage their jobs.

Should we throw the bankers in front of the train if we have the chance?

October 11, 2010 11:36 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

The way Spur and Fat Man differ significantly is insidious, because it introduces an intermediary -- You -- that serves only to obscure, not reveal, that what really is going on here is involvement versus commitment.

How so?

Remove the distinction between Fat Man and You by making You Fat Man.

That is the least complex, and most essential, way of distinguishing between Spur and Fat Man. Yet none of the trolley problems, or their variants, even acknowledges that step.

If You, the Fat Man, are standing on the bridge, and know that by jumping you will stop the trolley and save five people at the cost of your life, will You?

Similarly, if You are the person trapped on the Spur, and You hold the switch that decides whether You or the five on the mainline are to become the speed bump, what will You do?

This shows that real issue at hand is that between involvement and commitment, where breakfast provides the perfect analogy: the chicken is involved, the pig committed.

In the Fat Man variant of the problem, as stated, the FM is not involved at all; his presence and mass are purely fortuitous. The choice here is invoking his commitment without asking his consent. Making explicit the elided intermediate step shows that involuntarily forcing someone else to do what you would not choose to do yourself is what is really at stake, not mere body count, nor state of mind.

In Spur, the decision maker is merely involved, but not at all committed at all

Which is why I think these trolley problems fail. They pose themselves as paradoxes that probe questions of morality, when they are nothing of the kind.


We can only guess as to why the Wired article implies that conservatives are also prejudiced when the underlying paper specifically claims the opposite.

That is indeed perplexing. Based upon nothing more than personal preference, I attribute that to the Wired author's incompetence rather than malice or being impenetrably ideologically blinkered.

Perhaps I am too optimistic.

October 11, 2010 2:36 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Is it too simplistic to suggest that this is just varient on the question: Am I my brother's keeper?

October 11, 2010 3:04 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Hey Skipper

Surely it changes the moral situation dramatically if it is a question of throwing yourself of the bridge rather than someone else!

The value of the trolley problems has been illustrated simply by the discussion that has ensued here. They are there to raise moral questions in a rather specific way and clearly have succeeded in doing so in this debate.

October 11, 2010 11:22 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Surely it changes the moral situation dramatically if it is a question of throwing yourself of the bridge rather than someone else!


If your answer tracks my assertion that the difference is between involvement and commitment, then the moral situations involved by the trolley problem are distinct, so it should come as no surprise that people view them that way.

Eliding that distinction leads to a debate which rests upon a mistaken foundation; i.e., that we can tease out how people approach moral problems by looking for systemic distinctions between situations that appear different, but are not. That is perhaps a worthy goal, but I don't see how the trolley problem gets there.


Not too simplistic, but rather aiming at a different moral problem altogether: how much power should you have over someone else to prevent them doing something harmful to them.

October 12, 2010 12:35 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, that's not the only way to interpret the question. It also refers to actions we should or shouldn't take in situations where we are only observers.

Throwing oneself in front of a bus to save a child is heroic. Pushing someone else in front of a bus to save a child -- not so much.

Superman saves the day because he can save the day while we puny mortals can only talk about best case scenarios and moral dilemmas.

October 12, 2010 2:16 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't think you can tell what people will do in a morally ambiguous situation by asking them what they would do.

October 12, 2010 4:32 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

I don't think you can tell what people will do in a morally ambiguous situation by asking them what they would do.

Fair enough - but that is not the point of the trolley problems. They are not exercises in social psychology. They are trying to determine what we believe people ought to do - not what they would actually do.

October 12, 2010 11:08 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I have real problems with the concept of 'what people ought to do' in ridiculous situations that will never occur, but then I am a materialist.

We used to invent ever more baroque questions of that sort when we were 15, but most of us grew up and the rest became bioethicists.

I can easily think of real moral situations that are far more interesting than the trolley questions. Here's one:

You are Gene Pacelli, and your job is to give moral direction. One imagines that, in principle, you would advise against killing helpless babies for political reasons (or possibly for any reason).

When people in your neighborhood do that, you keep quiet. Possibly you fear that they will kill you personally if you don't. (There are other possible reasons for Pacelli to behave as he does, but they all put him outside the universe of moral actors, so we can disregard them.)

Later, the guys who kill babies are vanquished, so there is no reason of personal safety for you to continue keeping quiet. Do you: Moralize after the fact? Set up ratlines in your organization so the baby-killers can escape justice? Retire to a Trappist monastery? Kill yourself?

Here is the moral question: How would anyone justify taking Pacelli's moral direction, subsequently given, in any of those circumstances (except the latter two)?

This one has the advantage that the experiment was run several hundred million times, so we can know what people really do, rather than what they say they would do.

October 13, 2010 4:32 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...


I also am a materialist. Unfortunately I have no idea who Gene Pacelli is. I would point out that it is possible to do all of the actions you point out except perhaps kill yourself - although you could that after doing the other three.

Are you interested in what this guy ought to do or what he is likely to do? You persist in muddling in the two. The fact it has been done "several hundred million times" (do you really have that many people with this kind of responsibility in the USA?) is irrelevant to the former but highly relevant to the latter.

October 13, 2010 11:29 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Ex-Catholic joke. Eugenio Pacelli is the given name of Pope Pius XII.

I didn't have to invent this moral question. And is/ought stops being an issue when you are confronted and have to act.

October 14, 2010 1:37 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I guess you either find these thought experiments interesting in themselves or you don't. Criticising hypotheticals for not being realistic is rather beside the point, innit?

October 15, 2010 4:29 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Are you interested in what this guy ought to do or what he is likely to do?

What I am interested in is whether the thought experiment is designed to yield a useful result.

Near as I can tell, the point of the trolley problem is to present two dilemmas that appear different, but are, logically speaking, identical. Assessing how people treat the two dilemmas can lend insight into how we make moral decisions.

I find such thought experiments interesting, provided they are actually doing what they purport to do. So my criticism of this hypothetical is not lack of realism, but rather presenting moral quandaries which aren't.

In both Spur and Fat Man, one person is killed to save five, and the puzzle is the ethical distinction between the two.

To tease out the answer, all manner of strategies and explanations are employed, but none that I have read even mention one (to me, anyway) blindingly obvious distinction: in Spur, Loop and Lazy Susan, all of the potential victims are irrevocably involved. In Fat Man, one of the potential victims is not.

In most reasoning exercises, negation matters. Why not here?

October 15, 2010 9:34 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Skip - it's not clear to me why the spur guy's level or quality of 'involvement' is so different to the Fat Man's.

October 19, 2010 7:34 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


They are on the track and irrevocably involved; they are part of the problem, not some incidental addition to it. Consider how the entire hypothetical vaporizes if the guy on the spur is free to get up and leave.

In contrast, Fat Man is incidental. After all, there is nothing germaine about him that couldn't be equally fulfilled by a similarly heavy sack of bricks. Moreover, FM, unlike the poor sods on the tracks, unless the shove comes without warning, is free to shift himself to less harrowing environs.

October 23, 2010 7:30 PM  
Blogger David said...

You all do realize that the point of the trolley hypotheticals is to push people to a pro-abortion position, right?

October 27, 2010 7:30 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...


I assume that was a joke! (I have met people who might say that for real).

October 27, 2010 7:41 AM  
Blogger David said...

No, I'm being a little tendentious (arguably, the trolley problem is not meant to force a pro-abortion position) but I'm not joking. The trolley problem is really about abortion. In fact, it was introduced, in a different version from the one Skipper discusses, by Philippa Foote in The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect in Virtues and Vices. As a result, Foote argued that abortion was immoral: We are not allowed to choose to kill one person in order to benefit others.

The version Skipper discusses was then introduced by Judith Thomson in an attempt to show that, just as we would allow a bystander to kill one to save five, abortion is morally permissible.

October 27, 2010 8:28 AM  
Blogger David said...

By the way, my solution to the problem (borrowed from AW Friedman's unpublished dissertation, which is discussed in Thomson's article, Turning the Trolley, is that the bystander is not allowed to act in either hypothetical. Morally, inaction is not action and we are not allowed, morally, to act to kill one person to benefit any number of other people. Murder is still immoral even if done for the best of reasons.

This, to me, is made clear in the organ donation hypotheticals, which propose that, by forcibly harvesting the organs of one person, we could save the lives of five others.

October 27, 2010 8:34 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...


That is very interesting.


October 27, 2010 8:59 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


My objection to the trolley problem seems different than any other.

Am I just way out in left field (objection doesn't make sense, or isn't really different)?

October 27, 2010 9:26 AM  
Blogger David said...

I think it does make a difference, Skipper, and the added agency in the Fat Man variation makes it clearer that acting to kill someone is problematic, no matter the alternative. But I still think that the best choice is to do nothing, even though that results in five people dying.

Thomson actually has another iteration that makes that clearer for me. She adds a third setting for the switch, which will send the trolley down a track on which you (the hypothetical switch thrower) are stuck. So your choice is to do nothing, resulting in the deaths of five people; throw the switch one way, choosing to kill a stranger in order to avoid the deaths of the five; or throw the switch another way and sacrifice your own life in order to save the five.

Now, clearly it would be moral and laudable for you to sacrifice yourself that others may live, but you clearly aren't morally obliged to do so. But how can we then claim that, given your ability to sacrifice yourself, it is morally allowable to choose to sacrifice the other guy? And how does it suddenly become moral to sacrifice the other guy if you don't have the suicide switch option?

Also, doesn't the trolley hypothetical depend upon both focal bias and the fundamental attribution error? Focal bias because all we know is five v. one, so we treat those as the most important factors, but it would be trivial to come up with a particular one for whom we would sacrifice a particular five. Just because it's five v. one doesn't convince me that the one is "worth less" than the five.

As for the fundamental attribution error, can we be sure that our gut distinction between the switch case and the Fat Man case doesn't depend, to some degree, on the belief that someone who gets tied to a trolley track is to some extent to blame for their situation? Thus, our greater willingness to sacrifice them than a Fat Man who just happens to be walking by?

October 27, 2010 12:55 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

"the belief that someone who gets tied to a trolley track is to some extent to blame for their situation?"

No, it's that whoever tied him to the track is to some extent to blame for his situation.

October 27, 2010 2:56 PM  
Blogger David said...

Agreed. But how does that make it more acceptable to kill him?

October 28, 2010 5:28 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Because some of the responsibility falls on that unnamed third party instead of you. With Fat Man, it's all on you. One can easily argue that it's not enough of a difference to tip from unacceptable to acceptable, but I think it's clearly a significant difference.

October 28, 2010 7:04 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

What's more, with Fat Man it's about his fat, not his being a man.

October 28, 2010 3:14 PM  
Blogger David said...

I've just run across a version of the trolley problem in, well, not real life but in the wild.

My son just bought Fable III, a video game. It begins with the King's younger brother (or sister, the player can choose) discovering that the King intends to order an attack on a mob. He protests, and the King punishes him by making him choose whether the three leaders of the mob are put to death, or his girlfriend is put to death.

My son and daughter chose to spare the leaders, my son on utilitarian grounds and my daughter on the grounds of free speech and the right to assemble.

October 28, 2010 5:17 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Which means that free speech and right to assemble are not utilitarian.

But I will bet they are.

October 30, 2010 9:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home