Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum
epistemologue

The Trolley Problem

Rate this topic

Recommended Posts

If you are placed in the hypothetical "trolley problem", where a train is barreling toward a group of people tied to the tracks, and you happen across a lever with which you could divert the train onto another track on which only one person is tied to the tracks – do not pull the lever.

Do not take an action in which you direct a train toward a person to cause their death, because intentionally taking an action to kill an innocent person is murder, and murder is morally wrong.

If the train simply continues on its prior course without any intervention and a tragedy happens, there is no moral responsibility for the person who happened to be at the lever; tracing the chain of causality back from the tragedy, there is no point at which you can point to the person at the lever causing what followed: they made a choice, but they took no action to cause this tragedy, and they are not morally responsible for what happened.

An example of this kind of "moral jurisdiction" is in Atlas Shrugged, in the scene where Ferris talks to Galt:

 

Quote

"It's the question of moral responsibility that you might not have studied sufficiently, Mr. Galt," Dr. Ferris was drawling in too airy, too forced a tone of casual informality. "You seem to have talked on the radio about nothing but sins of commission. But there are also the sins of omission to consider. To fail to save a life is as immoral as to murder. The consequences are the same--and since we must judge actions by their consequences, the moral responsibility is the same.

. . . For instance, in view of the desperate shortage of food, it has been suggested that it might become necessary to issue a directive ordering that every third one of all children under the age of ten and of all adults over the age of sixty be put to death, to secure the survival of the rest. You wouldn't want this to happen, would you?

You can prevent it. One word from you would prevent it. If you refuse and all those people are executed--it will be your fault and your moral responsibility!"

"You're crazy!" screamed Mr. Thompson, recovering from shock and leaping to his feet. "Nobody's ever suggested any such thing! Nobody's ever considered it! Please, Mr. Galt! Don't believe him! He doesn't mean it!"

"Oh yes, he does," said Galt. "Tell the bastard to look at me, then look in the mirror, then ask himself whether I would ever think that my moral stature is at the mercy of his actions."

 

Edited by epistemologue

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 hours ago, epistemologue said:

If you are placed in the hypothetical "trolley problem", where a train is barreling toward a group of people tied to the tracks, and you happen across a lever with which you could divert the train onto another track on which only one person is tied to the tracks – do not pull the lever.

Do not take an action in which you direct a train toward a person to cause their death, because intentionally taking an action to kill an innocent person is murder, and murder is morally wrong.

If the train simply continues on its prior course without any intervention and a tragedy happens, there is no moral responsibility for the person who happened to be at the lever; tracing the chain of causality back from the tragedy, there is no point at which you can point to the person at the lever causing what followed: they made a choice, but they took no action to cause this tragedy, and they are not morally responsible for what happened.

An example of this kind of "moral jurisdiction" is in Atlas Shrugged, in the scene where Ferris talks to Galt:

 

 

I like this mostly because it recognizes what often is not recognized.  There are issues of "choice" and there is a separate issue of "causation". 

This correctly identifies the asymmetry present as regards to "causation".  Absence of action, non existence, zero, nothing... none of these can ever constitute a cause because in fact they are do not exist, and only reality can act causatively.

As such, it is ENTIRELY correct to say, one's choice not to do anything DOES NOT cause anything, and certainly does not cause the death of the people on the track toward which the train was already going.

 

That said, one still has to evaluate and weigh all the courses of action and the outcomes and this includes the choice to act or not to act.  As such, not doing something is still a choice from among a number of choices.

 

An Objectivist knows that the only criteria for action is self-interest.  This is an odd dilemma to be sure because one is faced with the "arithmetic" of complete strangers who may die.  The choice here is either to 

A. save and cause the deaths of innocents

versus

B. letting innocents die when one could save them.

This is not an easy choice but depends on the context of the chooser.  Could he/she live with the knowledge he/she caused one death to save 10? 100?  1 million?  Is it in his interests to keep a million people alive rather than one??

A person's self interest and value hierarchy is not quite so simple.

One thing for certain is that killing innocents IS murder.  Could one live with such a thing, to save a billion lives?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I just saw a very good movie, called Anthropoid. Highly recommend it. It's about Operation Anthropoid, carried out by British trained Czechoslovak paratroopers, to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich (nr. 3 in the German political system, architect of the Final Solution, and affectionately nicknamed "The Butcher of Prague").

When they crafted the mission, the British and (exiled) Czechoslovak governments knew that the Germans would inevitably retaliate against Czechoslovak civilians. So did the men who carried it out. And yet, they did it. Their actions likely saved people, but, at the same time, condemned 5000 Czechs to death (including the whole village of Lidice: the men were executed immediately, and most of the women and children were later gassed in extermination camps).

These kinds of decisions, that condemn soldiers and friendly civilians to death, have to be made often in war. And they are justified. I'm not even going to bother listing the adjectives that would describe sitting by and letting the enemy murder at will, because that way "the deaths are not my moral responsibility".

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Here is Robert Tracinsk's approach to the "problem":

http://tracinskiletter.com/2016/10/18/the-humanitarian-with-the-trolley/

Quote

The Trolley Problem is all the rage now when people write about self-driving cars. The idea is that we’re going to have to program them to decide whether to save pedestrians by ramming the car into a concrete barrier and killing the occupant.

The whole discussion is mind-bogglingly stupid...

He concludes:

Quote

[...] most of the people now discussing the Trolley Problem as if it might be serious have not worked out its monstrous implications. But that’s just a cautionary tale about how easily the unwary can be taken in if they haven’t learned to engage in critical thinking about big ideas. As for the philosophers who are pushing this–well, it’s their job to know, isn’t it? The persistence of the Trolley Problem and its ilk is proof they’re not doing it.

 

Edited by AlexL

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 hours ago, StrictlyLogical said:

Quite interesting Nicky.

Here the trolley is a volitional enemy... and how you fight it changes its course and the particular victims it wipes out.

The enemy is volitional in OP's example as well. Those people didn't get tied to the tracks by the wind.

The difference between the two scenarios is this: in mine, you are allowed to know about the people involved, and you can therefor JUDGE them. That's what makes the decision possible. You can recognize evil, and act to defeat it.

In OP's scenario, you're supposed to make a decision without knowing anything about the person who set this up, why he's doing what he's doing, or about the people tied to the track for that matter. You're supposed to make your decisions without JUDGING the people involved.

You're supposed to decide that diverting the train is right or wrong irrespective of who the people involved are, what they have done, why they're in this situation, etc.

That's what's fundamentally wrong about it: it divorces ethics from context, and expects people to have a moral code that doesn't require them to make value judgements about people, or do any kind of thinking, before they can apply it indiscriminately.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
23 hours ago, epistemologue said:

If the train simply continues on its prior course without any intervention and a tragedy happens, there is no moral responsibility for the person who happened to be at the lever; tracing the chain of causality back from the tragedy, there is no point at which you can point to the person at the lever causing what followed: they made a choice, but they took no action to cause this tragedy, and they are not morally responsible for what happened.

The flaw in your argument is that you have assigned the arbitration of morality to a third party.  And a disembodied third-party at that.

Who is this "you" that you are referring to?  Society?  Me?  Your next door neighbor?  God?

I decide what is moral and immoral.  The buck stops here, with me.  I don't put the morality of my actions up to a vote.

To quote the Holy Trinity:  "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

Edited by New Buddha

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
12 hours ago, Nicky said:

The enemy is volitional in OP's example as well. Those people didn't get tied to the tracks by the wind.

The difference between the two scenarios is this: in mine, you are allowed to know about the people involved, and you can therefor JUDGE them. That's what makes the decision possible. You can recognize evil, and act to defeat it.

In OP's scenario, you're supposed to make a decision without knowing anything about the person who set this up, why he's doing what he's doing, or about the people tied to the track for that matter. You're supposed to make your decisions without JUDGING the people involved.

You're supposed to decide that diverting the train is right or wrong irrespective of who the people involved are, what they have done, why they're in this situation, etc.

That's what's fundamentally wrong about it: it divorces ethics from context, and expects people to have a moral code that doesn't require them to make value judgements about people, or do any kind of thinking, before they can apply it indiscriminately.

Indeed.

This hearkens back to the original reason for Dream Weaver's post.  The problem is meant to "reduce" your morality to essentially an arbitrary decision.  Of course the exact motivation for doing this, conscious or subconscious, is up for debate.  Many altruist, rationalist, types are attracted to philosophy and moral "conundrums" because of the panache of the ineffable, and the unintelligible, but they also have beliefs and premises which nudge them towards certain scenarios.

IMHO I think it reveals an implicit premise of their kind... people and their lives can be reduced to arithmetic.  After all, in order for them to argue the sacrifice of the highest value of an individual, his or herself, to any number of others, they HAVE to attempt to argue a reduction of that highest value (of the one) and an increase in the value of the others (how ever many) and what is easier than a mere equating with numbers of people, which is concrete and easy to calculate.  That way sacrifice for the group can start to "make sense" to anyone...

I think this is exactly what the problem WANTS to do... it wants to make a moral question out of a metaphysical fact that an individual is separate from a group.  A person is not a group and his interests and actions are not those of a group (indeed a group does not have interests or actions... only individuals of the group do). Why try to make a moral evaluation of a metaphysical fact? Why try to ask is one person's existence "better" than the existence of a group of people? Because this is the way to call into question, to try to attack, individualism, and to attack the standard of morality of an individualist.

It emerges as an odd sort of thing about the problem when you think of it: the conundrum either assumes that the standard of morality is based on the needs of the group, or that at least it should be.  In the former case the problem is rigged and one MUST choose to sacrifice one person to save a group of people in order to be moral, in the latter case, the person considering the dilemma is actually being asked to adjust or decide on his morality... NOTE this is QUITE DISCTINCT from being asked to APPLY his morality.  The problem automatically is rigged to cast doubt on individualist moralities by illustrating the carnage which is an inevitable result (please note the sarcasm of tone here).  SEE,  You HAVE to save the group because it is the moral thing to do to avoid all that death... (arithmetic invoked here) and so morality cannot be based on the individual. (Of course this is not an argument.. it is a bald assertion and at best a circular argument). Clearly, in order for the desired conclusion to be reached divorced from any kind of logic, the question MUST invoke a strong emotional response, which is why death is invoked.

The dilemma is NOT meant to ask a question, or have you apply a moral standard.  The dilemma is really only a method of delivering a message and that message is "The individual is ONLY 1, his value is always less than ANY group of people, morality requires the sacrifice of one to the many."

 

To everyone reading...

Consider the same problem where the questioner asks you to choose between death/murder of Christians and Muslims.  The death/murder of Atheists and Jews;   Heterosexuals and Gays; Blacks and Whites;  Children and Old people;  The love of your life or your life that you love and that you want to share with him/her; Your Brother or your Sister; Your Mother or your Father; Your daughter or your mother;  Your Father or your son.

Disgusted yet?  You should be ... so why not be disgusted with being asked whether you should choose between the annihilation, the banishing to oblivion, of the irreplaceable life of one poor stranger OR many?

Edited by StrictlyLogical

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
20 hours ago, AlexL said:

Here is Robert Tracinsk's approach to the "problem":

http://tracinskiletter.com/2016/10/18/the-humanitarian-with-the-trolley/

He concludes:

 

I will NEVER drive a self driving car in anything other than manual driving mode.  I will not give up my control and judgment, especially if car manufacturers are making cars which will "decide" to sacrifice me for any reason.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Replying to this from the other thread here...

16 hours ago, Eiuol said:

If it's 5 strangers versus 1 stranger, I'd do what I can to save the 5.

So you would murder an innocent stranger for the sake of the greater good?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, dream_weaver said:

It would not be murder. The innocent stranger was sacrificed for the sake of the other 5 strangers.

Ok sarcasm is assumed.

DW

I hope in this thread I have done more than simply restate your and the your quoted author's original points.  I see it all quite clearly ... why there is so much resistance I  cannot guess.

Other than simply revealing the psychoepistemology of the trolley dilemma creators, the particular question serves no purpose for an Objectivist who lives by rational self interest. The only issue it raises is where in the value hierarchy are the lives of complete strangers as against the disvalue of having caused the death of one person...specifically how many more people would you let die to avoid being the murderer of one person.  The truth lies between 2 and a billion... but the answer is wholly irrelevant to leading one's life which is the sole purpose of morality.

In the end... far from profound ... or important... the trolley dilemma as such is utterly useless.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, StrictlyLogical said:

Ok sarcasm is assumed.

It was not intended to be sarcasm when I typed it. What I overlooked was—had the trolley run its course, the 5 deaths would have been a tragic accident or an action taken by someone else having put the trolley into motion. I transferred the deaths of the 5 to the 1 via assuming the switch was thrown, and then fell for it myself at the same time trying to downplaying it as a sacrifice.

This belies something though. It goes back to your pedagogical point.

Does doing what one can to save the 5 mean that the switch was thrown to do so? I jumped the gun here. Doing what one can to save the 5 does not necessarily mean that the 1 was murdered in the process.

Ironically, I've usually tried to steer clear of addressing these types of questions head-on. The question has more so irked me over the past rather than disgusted me as described earlier here.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
7 hours ago, epistemologue said:

So you would murder an innocent stranger for the sake of the greater good?

No. In general, if a tragedy -is- bound to occur, and all people involved are all equally strangers to me, more strangers are more valuable. It's not greater good, insofar as more people in this case are more valuable to me. It doesn't matter to me if it requires me to act or this result occurs if I wasn't there. I don't care about consequences per se, it's part of virtuous nature to protect values as best I can.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 10/20/2016 at 7:02 PM, Nicky said:

That's what's fundamentally wrong about it: it divorces ethics from context, and expects people to have a moral code that doesn't require them to make value judgements

14 hours ago, Eiuol said:

all people involved are all equally strangers to me, more strangers are more valuable.

i agree that "more strangers" existing is better than "less strangers". thought experiments that isolate the position that in general having more/less people in the world is valuable could be constructed. but the trolley problem is not one of them. too much context is unavoidably included. by the nature of the question itself, the trolley problem simply doesn't get as far abstracted as "5>1", and the fact that people jump there, or interpret it as a choice between "a group" vs "an individual", or whatever else, is not the fault of the question.

 

the threat involved is a train. trains run on fixed schedules that are knowable. usually the question has the 5 people tied down (presumably by some villain, as Nicky said: "those people didn't get tied to the tracks by the wind") who would have done that at the time they did because they knew a train would be approaching then. by this device that context is explicitly preserved. we know that the train is supposed to be in this place at this time, it is part of the scenario that it is justifiably expected by all that the train will run just this course.

we also know and should have in mind unless anything is said to adjust it, that trains are owned and run by companies, so this is private property you'd be interfering with. when the questioner includes that the person who is at the switch is not an operator, not an associated employee at all, but just a bystander, this context is also reinforced in the storytelling itself.

so the question can also be an exercise in retention of context, or attachment to reality, and reveal peoples' readiness to move away from it. SL had the right standpoint in his conversation with the imaginary professor: context should have to be explicitly removed through some story device, otherwise it's fair game, since the correct method of thinking is to hold concepts in a full way, as representing all of their content and detail.

the person who is posing the question is aiming at a specific variable, and is attempting to tailor the question in such a way that they've covered all the other bases. the questioner may be successful or unsuccessful at getting to their target.

Peikoff makes some of these points about the trolley question in his answer here, along with the idea that individualists do not consider people interchangeable (or as SL said earlier, rejects that "people and their lives can be reduced to arithmetic"): http://www.peikoff.com/2008/05/26/if-five-people-are-in-an-emergency-room-dying-and-one-healthy-person-in-the-waiting-room-could-save-them-all-if-we-used-his-organs-is-it-morally-permissible-to-do-this-even-though-hell-die/

Edited by splitprimary

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The context that is missing is the only context that actually matters when making choices that concern other people: WHO THE PEOPLE ARE.

And that's the context that is deliberately being abstracted away, for one and only one purpose: to create a test that trips up a moral code that relies on the judging of people.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
23 hours ago, epistemologue said:

Replying to this from the other thread here...

So you would murder an innocent stranger for the sake of the greater good?

Why are you calling it murder?  How does this situation regardless of the choice made qualify the choice as murder?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 10/20/2016 at 4:44 AM, bluecherry said:

I've registered objections to this argument of yours previously in the chat before.

Would you like to state your opinion here? Or would you mind if I quoted you from the chat?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 10/20/2016 at 3:38 PM, Nicky said:

Their actions likely saved people, but, at the same time, condemned 5000 Czechs to death (including the whole village of Lidice: the men were executed immediately, and most of the women and children were later gassed in extermination camps).

This isn't a good analogy, because in this case one's actions still do not cause the death of these innocent Czechs. You aren't killing them, someone else is; you didn't cause their death, the Nazis did. It's not your moral responsibility, it's theirs.

So you are entirely justified in "pulling the lever" in that case - you're acting in self-defense against these aggressors, and you are not the one causing the deaths of innocent people.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
54 minutes ago, epistemologue said:

This isn't a good analogy, because in this case one's actions still do not cause the death of these innocent Czechs. You aren't killing them, someone else is; you didn't cause their death, the Nazis did. It's not your moral responsibility, it's theirs.

So you are entirely justified in "pulling the lever" in that case - you're acting in self-defense against these aggressors, and you are not the one causing the deaths of innocent people.

I'm not gonna engage you in aimless philosophizing.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 10/22/2016 at 4:32 PM, Craig24 said:

Why are you calling it murder?  How does this situation regardless of the choice made qualify the choice as murder?

You action caused the death of an innocent person.  Regardless of the reason.  You intent was also to kill the innocent, so you cannot claim ignorance or accident.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 10/20/2016 at 7:03 AM, StrictlyLogical said:

I like this mostly because it recognizes what often is not recognized.  There are issues of "choice" and there is a separate issue of "causation". 

This correctly identifies the asymmetry present as regards to "causation".  Absence of action, non existence, zero, nothing... none of these can ever constitute a cause because in fact they are do not exist, and only reality can act causatively.

As such, it is ENTIRELY correct to say, one's choice not to do anything DOES NOT cause anything, and certainly does not cause the death of the people on the track toward which the train was already going.

 

That said, one still has to evaluate and weigh all the courses of action and the outcomes and this includes the choice to act or not to act.  As such, not doing something is still a choice from among a number of choices.

 

An Objectivist knows that the only criteria for action is self-interest.  This is an odd dilemma to be sure because one is faced with the "arithmetic" of complete strangers who may die.  The choice here is either to 

A. save and cause the deaths of innocents

versus

B. letting innocents die when one could save them.

This is not an easy choice but depends on the context of the chooser.  Could he/she live with the knowledge he/she caused one death to save 10? 100?  1 million?  Is it in his interests to keep a million people alive rather than one??

A person's self interest and value hierarchy is not quite so simple.

One thing for certain is that killing innocents IS murder.  Could one live with such a thing, to save a billion lives?

This is a very good reply.

To apply this to in first person, in that situation, I would know the difference between causation and choice.  The first choice is - "Do I get involved or not?"  Not - "Who should die?"

After I correctly absolve myself from blame (should I choose not to get involved, I then embark on deciding the first choice.  Here is where self interest enters the equation.  If it were turned around and the train was naturally heading for 1 person, with 5 on the other track, but that 1 person was my child, I would get involved and I would switch.

But not so fast.  Is there a number above 5 that I would do nothing and let it remain on my child's track? 100?  No. 1000?  No. 10000?  No. 100000?  No. 1 Million?  Maybe.  Depends upon which country I'm in.  America?  No.  My home country?  Hmm.  Now we're getting into serious grey area.

Without skin in the game, and back to the original model - train headed toward 5 with 1 on the other track.  If we increase it to 1 hundred thousand people (big train), would I switch?  I very well might.  People have nominal value.  Society is valuable for traders.  Humans are traders.

To believe that there is no number that would cause you to get involved to rescue - is naïveté.
____

That being said, here are some interesting stats on the topic.
Overwhelmingly, when asked about the trolley problem, most said that they would pull the lever.
A real life trolley situation was designed (you can find it on youtube).  The majority of test subjects did nothing at let the 5 die.

Edited by dreadrocksean

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Somebody challenged me once with the following.

You're driving a car down a mountain road.  The brakes fail.  You can steer but not slow or stop.  You are approaching a bridge packed with kids.  Your choices are steer for the bridge and mow down the kids or steer to the side and be killed yourself.  He indicated he wouldn't have any respect for anyone whose choice was to steer for the bridge.  I tried to explain that this was an abnormal situation with no fully satisfactory outcome and he said he would be perfectly satisfied to steer to the side and die. 

He had a military background.  I don't know to what extent that entered into it.  

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...