A streetcar named moral confusion
Ethics, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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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