A streetcar named moral confusion

Don't be taken in by a hypothetical problem meant to impress beginners.
Zac Alstin | 10 May 2011
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Illustration: Prospect MagazineEthics, believe it or not, is a science: “Any branch or department of systematized knowledge considered as a distinct field of investigation or object of study.”

And, like any modern scientist, modern ethicists savour the most pithy and intractable challenges to their knowledge and assumptions. Such challenges are the obvious test of any ethical theory. But, while theoretical physicists grapple with questions such as how to resolve quantum mechanics and general relativity, ethicists struggle to produce convincing responses to hypotheticals such as the infamous Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment created by British moral philosopher Philippa Foot (1920-2010) in 1978. It has since spawned a collection of related problems and has even inspired parallel investigations from a cognitive science perspective. The problem itself is quite straightforward: 

A trolley (a tram or a streetcar) is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing? 

This thought experiment demands a number of answers: what would you do in such a situation, and why would you do it? What ought you to do? And, most importantly, why ought you to do it?

Whatever your answer to these questions, your consistency and resolve may be challenged by ever more contrived or harrowing dilemmas. Take, for example, the ‘Fat Man’ version of the Trolley Problem: 

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? 

These thought experiments are designed to put your beliefs and consistency to the test. For example, you might conclude in the first instance that it would be better for one person to die than for five people to be killed, and so flip the switch. But would you adhere to the same reasoning in the “Fat Man” scenario, and push the man over the bridge? The math is the same in both instances, and if we are to be consistent then the same moral principles must apply.

But these kinds of hypothetical moral problems are not like the problems tackled by physicists and other natural sciences. For one thing, physicists are agreed on their objectives: to investigate and accurately define the physical laws and properties of the universe. Hence the problems faced by physicists are real problems that require real answers.

On the contrary, the hypothetical problems created by ethicists are designed to test internal consistency, adherence to principles, and clarification of complex issues. Not only are they not real problems, but solving them is not the real point either. In fact, philosophers will not agree on the underlying ethical context, and they will not agree on what constitutes a solution. Should our aim be to clarify our moral intuitions? Or should we regard intuitions as suspect and aim for the most “rational” course of action? The answer will depend on who is asking the question, and many who do ask are already committed to the idea that the consequences of an action are all that matters.

What hope does a student have when they are presented with such problems by a teacher who believes that our intentions are morally irrelevant and that the principle of double effect is therefore fallacious? Yet the principle of double effect is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, and central not only to the ethics of warfare but to self-defence and medicine also.

Another difference between the problems of natural science and the thought experiments of ethics is that the realism of these hypothetical problems is sometimes questionable. Is it feasible that a fat man could derail an out-of-control trolley? Perhaps we should ask a physicist before we ask a philosopher. Naturally, it is considered bad form to circumvent an ethical problem by criticising its realism; we are meant to accept the scenario in a hypothetical spirit and decide what to do if it were real. Indeed, our ethical principles should be rigorous enough to deal with the most outlandish hypotheticals.

But in many cases it seems that the whole point of these invented problems is to leverage psychological pressure against non-utilitarian forms of ethics. In other words, these problems can serve merely as devices to dissuade people from holding certain ethical principles. This is, I am sure, less an issue for serious philosophers and ethicists than it is for the many students and amateurs who encounter these ideas in their formative stages of moral thinking.

Take, for example, the issue of torture. If we assert that torture is always and everywhere wrong, utilitarian critics look for the most extreme and emotionally tortuous hypotheticals. “So, you wouldn’t torture a terrorist to find the location of a nuclear bomb that will kill hundreds of thousands of people?” or “You wouldn’t torture a member of a murderous gang to find the location of a kidnapped child?” The implication is that we must express a cold-hearted preference for the death of hundreds of thousands of people, or for the murder of an innocent child, rather than contravene our rigid ethical beliefs. Under the weight of such emotionally loaded accusations, the question of realism is relevant indeed. “Don’t listen to that guy, his ethics are so unrealistic that he’d rather let tens of millions of people be wiped out in a nuclear holocaust than to sully himself with a bit of light torture which, we all agree, is bound to save the day.”

In addition, such hypothetical scenarios are often loaded with questionable assumptions. Why should we assume that torture will work? Will the fat man derail the trolley? Serious philosophers will overlook such dubious presumptions for the sake of the argument. But in the more general debate we should not let them go unchallenged. After all, the underlying premise of ethics itself is to show us the way to a good life, how to flourish as human beings. And while sound principles of ethics will undoubtedly see us facing severe hardships at times, refusing to take an easy way out, it is hardly fair or relevant to the overarching goal of a good life to have to take seriously every fanciful nightmare scenario concocted by someone who wants you to abandon your ethical principles.

Unlike ethicists, physicists will not waste their time with hypothetical scenarios that rest on faulty assumptions. Their interest lies in describing reality, not defending their consistency against unrealistic fantasies. Since there is just this one reality in which we all must live, perhaps we would be best served by working out how to live here, rather than how to live in possible hypothetical worlds where torture often saves thousands from nuclear incineration, where fat men are often used to derail trolleys.

It is no coincidence that trolleyology is of little use in everyday life. A utilitarian – think Peter Singer -- might advise you that there is no meaningful difference between pulling the trolley switch to save five lives, and pushing the fat man off the bridge to save five lives.

But his principles will also advise you that there is no meaningful difference between staying with your wife, or leaving her for another woman – it all comes down to the net balance of happiness achieved. Likewise, a utilitarian may struggle to give you advice on whether you should have children, or whether you should spend your life pursuing pleasure. The study of runaway trolleys doesn’t deliver much insight into what true happiness is, how it can be measured, and how it can be achieved.

But isn’t that the whole point of ethics?

By contrast, traditional ethics observes that having children provides a kind of fulfilment that is irreducible and irreplaceable. If you are able to have children, doing so will contribute to your flourishing as a human being. When all such goods are identified, we will know how we ought to live in order to flourish. Only when we know how we ought to live can we then deal with such unusual and conflicted scenarios as the Trolley Problem.

This is the path taken by traditional ethics: it is first and foremost a set of guidance for the greatest fulfilment we can hope to achieve. It is a system of knowledge founded on the real life problem of how to achieve true happiness.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.

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