Trolley Problem

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Trolley Problem

I'm curious to see what XKCDers think about the famous "Trolley Problem".

Original trolley problem:
Train is on track to kill 5 people who cannot escape its path. You are in control of a lever that can divert the train, causing it to kill one person trapped on the another path. What would you do?
Variation 1:
The 5 people are terminally ill, the other person is a pregnant woman.
Variation 2:
The 5 people are young children, the other person is the person you love most in your life.
Variation 3:
The 5 people are young children, the other person is you.
Variation 4:
The 5 people are petty criminals, the other person is you.
Variation 5:
The 5 people are corrupt cops, the other person is a felon (who was not sentenced to death).

A) Instead of 5 people, it is 500 people (and still one person on other track).
B) The train was not putting anyone's life in danger until you inadvertently triggered it by bumping into a lever.
C) Someone has a gun to your head and will kill you if you don't choose the opposite of what you want to choose.
D) A third option will kill everyone, but will also kill the person that created the situation.

I couldn't take the spelling error any longer

-Az
Last edited by Cradarc on Fri Apr 03, 2015 1:11 am UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Trolly Probleem

Here are my responses. I'm using #0 for the original problem, and 1-5 for the variations.

0-5:
I would do nothing in all cases. I did not create the situation, so as far as I'm concerned, it is no more morally pressing than world hunger or a pandemic. Whatever happens will probably trouble me, but it would be something I have to live with. Realistically, I would think about it too much and end up doing nothing anyways.

0A, 1A, 4A, 5A:
I would still do nothing.
2A, 3A:
500 children would push my emotions a bit. I'm not sure why. It just seems so tragic that 500 childhoods will be cut short because of my adherence to some rigid moral principle. I guess as a young adult I have a greater appreciation for childhood than adult life.

0B-5B:
Choices unchanged. Although I now bear direct moral responsibility for the consequences, it still feels wrong to consciously commit another sin to "correct" a prior one. 3B and 4B are tempting, but I don't have to right to judge myself. I believe that is God's role (if the judicial system doesn't get me first).

0C-5C:
I would stand by my choices. Realistically, I might break. I like to think I value what is moral above my life.

0D-5D:
Won't change anything. If just the person responsible will die and that person intends on putting more lives in danger, I might do it. Even then, there would be a great deal of hesitation.
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Forest Goose
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Re: Trolly Probleem

It just seems so tragic that 500 childhoods will be cut short because of my adherence to some rigid moral principle

What moral principle is it that you are rigidly adhering too, though? You never supplied any moral principles, the most you said was:

I did not create the situation, so as far as I'm concerned, it is no more morally pressing than world hunger or a pandemic.

Which, even if true (and I see no evidence it is), does not obligate you to never act - at most, it simply indicates that you are not obligated to act. For the same reason, many might agree, that I'm not obligated to donate money to help with pandemics and world hunger, I don't think anyone would agree that I'm obligated not to donate money on the grounds of "not my problem".

That said, why exactly isn't world hunger (and pandemics) "morally pressing"? They may not be personally pressing, since we aren't dealing with them, but I have trouble believing that they aren't morally pressing (supposing morality). For example, if I was going to do something that made world hunger worse, then I'd say it's very morally pressing that I don't do that thing - and if I were going to do something that made it better, than I would say it was morally pressing that I damn well did. (Of course, the reality is that lots of causes are morally pressing, and, honestly, life isn't only helping with making horrible things better - so, perhaps, more realistically, I would say that if you can act to alleviate, to within reason, you ought; and you, certainly, ought not act in a way that directly worsens).

At any rate, long story short, I don't see a moral principle you are adhering to, and the closest you mentioned is something I would call bogus to begin with (and, definitely, not something that removes you from the burden of having to consider what to do - in other words, you don't get a moral free pass because "not my problem", it's the exact opposite: if morality matters, then a lot of that mattering is what you do when it isn't your problem, not when it is.)

500 children would push my emotions a bit. I'm not sure why. It just seems so tragic that 500 childhoods will be cut short because of my adherence to some rigid moral principle. I guess as a young adult I have a greater appreciation for childhood than adult life.

No offense, I'm sure this isn't what you meant, but that sounds nigh sociopathic. I could understand sticking to a rigid principle, even when difficult, that's laudable, if right - but, the first two lines sounds like you're genuinely confused as to why 500 children dying might be troubling (and that it wouldn't be very troubling, nonetheless). Your conclusion, also, seems a bit off - is it really just because you're closer in age, like it would all be way more acceptable if they were 50 years old, or something?

Again, I'm sure that's not your intent, or maybe it's me, but that reads in a way that sounds like an alien trying to figure out this thing the humans call, "compassion". I don't mean to insult, that's not why I'm pointing it out, but perhaps you should consider this more in depth, maybe you are thinking of things in a very very abstract way, not in the context of if this really happened and actual moral (supposing there is such) reckoning?
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Autolykos
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Re: Trolly Probleem

My generic response to moral dilemmas is "shut up and multiply". I.e. get a good estimate of the Quality of Life Years on the line with each option and act accordingly. Secondary consequences hurting others (like with the criminals) might affect the decision a bit, but I could probably not even get a rough estimate of the effects in real-time, so I might just discard it as "small".
The only exception I make is "Don't make a personal sacrifice you can't recover from.". I know it's immoral from a utilitarian perspective, but I won't expect anyone to do it for me, and I'm human after all.

In concrete terms, that means I'd pull the lever in 0, 5, 0A, possibly 1A, 5A, change my decision in any C (except possibly 2C; in 3-4C there's no way to save myself anyway), and never pick D. B is completely irrelevant to my reasoning.

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Re: Trolly Probleem

Any time you actively make the choice to pull you become a murderer in the absence of self preservation (one of the missing components to all these silly problems is how the hell you get to this point - if I'm joy riding on a trolley then even self preservation is murder)

So basically

Original - don't pull
1 - don't pull
2 - don't pull (sorry kids)
3 - don't pull (sorry kids)
4 - don't pull
5 - don't pull

A) makes no difference
B) This is phrased as an accident so doesn't change the parameters
C) Makes the choice morally irrelevant - but I self sacrifice in variation 2, variations 3 & 4 are irrelevant under this paradigm
D) don't pull

You missed the more interesting variants of E) reversing the numbers (particularly 5 family members vs a stranger), which is a "would you commit a murder to save your family question" (yes for the record). F) you deliberately started the trolley knowing that the outcome choice is inevitable - in which case you can take a pragmatic or selfish view as you desire (you are already a murderer)

Chen
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Re: Trolly Probleem

The situation is convoluted enough that I'm not considering secondary ramifications such as going to jail having caused the single person to die. I'm considering that outside the scope of this. If we include that then we need to include other options such as trying to determine a way to stop the trolley completely etc etc. Going strictly by the primary ramifications of one of the two sets of people dying here goes:

For situation C I assume not to consider after-effects again. I mean letting yourself be shot is stupid if the gunman can then just do whatever he wants with the lever. It also assumes the gunman is truthful and somehow magically disappears after this event and doesn't continue threatening you to do things you don't want to.

The lever is never pulled in D, unless the person who setup the situation is likely to continue doing it. Odds are I don't have this knowledge at the time so I likely would not pull it in any case.

0, 0A, 0B: Lever gets pulled. Saving many vs one is reasonable in my opinion.
0C: I go along with the gunman and change my mind to do nothing. Self-preservation first.

1, 1A, 1B: Lever isn't pulled. The ones on the track are most likely going to die soon anyways.
1C: Again self-preservation first so lever is pulled after the gunman tells me to change my action.

2, 2A, 2B, 2C: Lever is not pulled. Sorry children. Even in the C case I'd like to think I would give my life for my loved one's. Heat of the moment could clearly change that decision though.

All 3 and 4: Well self-preservation first. Lever is not pulled except in the C cases where I'm going to die in any case. As such I guess I pull the lever and save the people before getting shot.

5, 5A, 5B: Tricky. I suspect I don't pull the lever since 5 corrupt cops are probably worse for society than 1 felon. Both options are kinda bad here.
5C: Eh, do whatever the gunman wants I'm not super torn on the two here.
5 is also probably the only situation where I'd consider pulling in the D case, but it'd probably still need some obvious information as whether or not whoever setup the situation was likely to keep doing things like this.

HungryHobo
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Re: Trolly Probleem

Trolley problems tend to push people towards utilitarian conclusions in the same way that word descriptions involving things like "you have to look into the persons eyes" tend to push people towards deontological conclusions.

The Utilitarian answer tends to be the one that you really really want to be the one that gets made if you don't have the pleasure of knowing who you'll get to be when the scenario plays out.
Unless you're in a position of extreme privilege if you have sense you want your hospital administrator to behave like a rule utilitarian faced with a trolley problem, you want the administrator to make the best choice for the most people when faced with scarce resources. Ditto government administrators and pretty much anyone who has to make choices for resource allocation involving large numbers of peoples lives.
Making choices based on deontological ethics in such cases is just too hideously murderous.

ie: if you've just been struck down by a stunningly rare illness that where it gets steadily more expensive to keep you alive on life support you might personally want the hospital administrator to effectively throw everyone else under the bus and say "damnit I don't care if it's going to ruin the budget, we're not going to let this man die due to petty concerns about money!"
But if you've not yet been struck down by that particular condition you're much more likely to end up with a more common condition and much more likely to be one of the other poor sods in the hospital and for your own good and the good of almost everyone you really really want the admin to be making choices based on boring things like QALY's

People also tend to be really really really bad at trading against sacred values.

So you can also re-frame it to pass through something non-sacred that still has a concrete value in lives to screw up peoples intuitions.
For example the trolly is flying towards a crate full of vials of medecine that would cure 500 people who will die without it... or you could pull the lever and have it run over [1 person]/[a beloved pet dog in front of a child for whom the dog is his only companion]

often when people don't like the way trolly problems make them feel they try to attack the very concept: ie start moaning about how the people ever got in front of the trolly but that's massively missing the point. you could post the same issues and call it something like the "avalanche problem" and frame it as you seeing an avalanche heading towards a large school full of children that you can divert towards a small old-folks home by setting off explosives already placed in the hillside for some other purpose etc.

You also might want to draw a line between the issue of "what option feels like the good choice for me to do if I'm put at this position in this scenario" and "what is the option I would want the lever-person to make assuming I don't know in advance which of the people in the scenario I'm going to be"
Last edited by HungryHobo on Thu Apr 02, 2015 1:29 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Trolly Probleem

I disagree somewhat, Trolley problems just expose how arbitrary human base morality is. Basically twerk the parameters to the same problem and you get wildly different outcome distributions

HungryHobo
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Re: Trolly Probleem

Well yes, that's part of the point. it's a way of splitting up the aspects of a moral problem so you can separate things like responsibility for the scenario from different choices.

Actually I'd like to add one to the above.

1:A mother and child are on the tracks. a trolley is speeding towards them, both with definitely die if nothing changes. You have the control to release a trolley from the side to block/hit the other on-rushing trolley but the child is in front of the mother and is tied to the junction. the child dies in all scenarios but you can save the mothers life by changing which trolley hits the child.

and for any who haven't guessed it it's a reference to the catholic churches position on medically necessary abortion, since they're hardcore deontologists their position is that you have a moral duty to let both die.
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Re: Trolly Probleem

well that's a strange position too (although the direct tie to abortion is tenuous as the world isn't even close to this binary )

basically there several factors that trigger moral responsibility

Responsibility for the set up
responsibility for directly changing the outcome

If either of these are true then you are responsible for the outcome you create. The hospital administrator allocating resources is making an amoral choice for example, in that they are only improving outcomes (at least until organ harvesting leaves the realms of urban myths). Ditto your last example

However in other variants of these "scenarios", the man that steals a rare drug to save himself or another is always immoral (understandable in the way that actively saving a loved one over 5 strangers in the trolley example is) - all that's left is matter of degree (the loaf of bread vs bankrupting a pharmacist debate)

Tyndmyr
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Re: Trolly Probleem

Cradarc wrote:I'm curious to see what XKCDers think about the famous "Trolly Problem".

Ah, this again. I like this one.

Original trolley problem:
Train is on track to kill 5 people who cannot escape its path. You are in control of a lever that can divert the train, causing it to kill one person trapped on the another path. What would you do?

If I don't know any of these people? Dunno. Try to shift at the last minute, hoping for a derailment, I guess. Probably won't work, but hey. Having some sort of reason to justify killing someone might help at court.

Variation 1:
The 5 people are terminally ill, the other person is a pregnant woman.

Sweet jebus, how do I know all this? At this point, I have to assume it's a horribly contrived scenario set up by some evil jackass, and "terminally ill" doesn't mean a great deal without remaining lifespan. Everybody dies eventually. So, I'll probably still flip the lever for two.

Variation 2:
The 5 people are young children, the other person is the person you love most in your life.

Sorry kids, you're gonna die.

Variation 3:
The 5 people are young children, the other person is you.

These kids die too.

Variation 4:
The 5 people are petty criminals, the other person is you.

Look, I didn't save the kids, you ain't gonna live either.

Variation 5:
The 5 people are corrupt cops, the other person is a felon (who was not sentenced to death).

Briefly lament the fact that I have only one trolly, then let the five die.

A) Instead of 5 people, it is 500 people (and still one person on other track).

Oddly enough, not at all. Maybe less waiting to the last minute/hestitating on the ones where I shift the trolly to kill one.

B) The train was not putting anyone's life in danger until you inadvertently triggered it by bumping into a lever.

I would feel a little bad about that, but I'd seriously wonder at the safety levels here. While doing the exact same.

C) Someone has a gun to your head and will kill you if you don't choose the opposite of what you want to choose.

How does that work? They can read my mind or something? What about the ones where I want to live? Doesn't that kind of make that whole scenario not work?

D) A third option will kill everyone, but will also kill the person that created the situation.

Look, if I have no way for me to survive, but a way to kill whoever created the situation, I'll take it. This might be different if I could save whoever I love most. Maaaybe. But there are severe trust issues with whoever set up this scenario in the first place, so I'll probably take the lethal option.

cphite
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Re: Trolly Probleem

Cradarc wrote:I'm curious to see what XKCDers think about the famous "Trolly Problem".

Original trolley problem:
Train is on track to kill 5 people who cannot escape its path. You are in control of a lever that can divert the train, causing it to kill one person trapped on the another path. What would you do?

Variation 1:
The 5 people are terminally ill, the other person is a pregnant woman

Do nothing; the life of a child outweighs five that will soon end.

Variation 2:
The 5 people are young children, the other person is the person you love most in your life.

Pull the lever; she would agree.

Variation 3:
The 5 people are young children, the other person is you.

Pull the lever.

Variation 4:
The 5 people are petty criminals, the other person is you.

Do nothing. Hey, sorry guys; I might take one for some kids but you're on your own.

Variation 5:
The 5 people are corrupt cops, the other person is a felon (who was not sentenced to death).

Do nothing; corrupt cops are worse than criminals.

A) Instead of 5 people, it is 500 people (and still one person on other track).

Pull the lever except in the case of the corrupt cops; screw those guys.

B) The train was not putting anyone's life in danger until you inadvertently triggered it by bumping into a lever.

Irrelevant. The situation is what it is, the cause doesn't change the outcome.

C) Someone has a gun to your head and will kill you if you don't choose the opposite of what you want to choose.

I'd take the gun, shoot them in the stomach (they'll live, emergency personnel are obviously going to be around later) and then do what I was gonna do regarding the lever.

D) A third option will kill everyone, but will also kill the person that created the situation.

Not really an option.

morriswalters
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Re: Trolly Probleem

Kill the singleton
Variation 1 The women
Variation 2 I would act as my loved one would(I couldn't love anyone who wouldn't die for children given no other choice)
Variation 3, The kids.
Variation 5, Reduce the criminal population regardless of their condition of servitude.

A) Numbers don't matter
B) Who triggered it is irrelevant
C) Take the bullet
D) See B

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Re: Trolly Probleem

Forest Goose,
I'm not the most empathetic person out there. When I feel sympathy, it is more of a mental connection (seeing myself in someone else's shoes) rather than an emotional connection. Am I psychopathic? I hope not...

Suppose instead of the 5 people dying by train, it is 5 million people dying from hunger. You can feed all 5 million if you kill 1 million others. Would you do it? The crucial point is that by doing something to help the 5 people in need, you purposely kill someone who was not in danger in the first place. It's akin to cannibalism among a group of people marooned on an island. Why gives you the right to kill someone so the others can survive?
I come to my conclusions by imagining myself in the situation, not analyzing it from an outsider's perspective. Like I said, I don't have a clear explanation, but here is an attempt. Children seem to have more "potential" for life than adults. I believe everyone is here for a purpose. Adults, having spent more time on earth, are more likely to have completed their purpose than children who have just arrived not long ago. Having many children die is not only tragic from an individual perspective, but also tragic in a sense that so much life has been wasted.

I also noticed you (and others) did not actually respond to the problem. Does the prospect makes you uncomfortable? I think these problems are important to consider because they make you ponder about your place in this world and what it means to value the lives of other human beings. On the surface, saving more people seems to imply greater appreciation for life, but in doing so, you are making the statement that consciously taking a human life is okay if you feel it is justified.
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slinches
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Re: Trolly Probleem

My reaction to any of these scenarios would be to stare in disbelief that such a contrived scenario is actually happening and consequently fail to act. Also, how is it possible that I could both be stuck on the tracks and have the option to divert the trolley? Is the lever somehow voice activated and keyed to my voice?

Seriously though, the question is intended to tease out the boundaries of morality of value judgements and personal responsibility of action vs inaction, but in my case it fails completely. The question is so divorced from reality that my answers don't represent my real beliefs. Instead I imagine being someone in an alternate reality where these things are possible (perfect knowledge of outcomes, time to assess the situation and act but not change any potential outcomes, action and inaction both being an active choice, etc.), which alters the version of me who is answering in such a way that the answers no longer represent my values and morality in this reality.

When the question is posed in more realistic terms (e.g. the hospital administrator example above), the answers are more representative as long as the choice is between strangers. If the choice involves someone I personally care about, then the only responsible decision would be to recuse myself and let someone who can be more objective step in.

Reko
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Re: Trolly Probleem

Cradarc wrote: On the surface, saving more people seems to imply greater appreciation for life, but in doing so, you are making the statement that consciously taking a human life is okay if you feel it is justified.

I don't think it is saying that, because we aren't given a choice to NOT take a life in these examples.

HungryHobo
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Re: Trolly Probleem

leady wrote:well that's a strange position too (although the direct tie to abortion is tenuous as the world isn't even close to this binary )

I should have been more clear, it's a reference to a sub-case of abortion where a pregnancy is killing the mother, if a womans heart can't take the strain of the pregnancy or she's dying from some other pregnancy related condition where the treatment she needs is an abortion then the churches position is that it's immoral to take the action of killing the foetus[which they consider to be a full person] because you're choosing to kill someone.

They consider it extremely binary, they take the view that killing an innocent person by your own hand who's dying anyway to save someone else is still murder and they will excommunicate anyone involved, it's just a really really hardcore version of deontological ethics.

A) makes no difference

So you're seriously saying the numbers make no difference at all?

Since other people are taking issue with the trolley examples lets go with something even more ridiculous but which has a better narrative: you're in a scenario a little like that of Bruce Willis in Armageddon but a smaller (still highly destructive) fragment of the asteroid is directly on course for one of the worlds largest cites(london, new york etc). Millions are about to die. You have the button that can set off a bomb on it's surface that will change it's course and divert it to hit a sparsely populated mountain range.

Do you press the button to save the city?
The mountains aren't totally unpopulated, there's a few people with hunting cabins.
There's at least one person there.

If you and you loved ones were observers from outside the city/mountains and you weren't the individual how would you view someone who refused to press the button because he said he didn't want to take on personal responsiblity for a few deaths in the mountains?

Going with the theme of high-energy ethics, ie, testing whether the principle breaks down with large enough numbers or if you're an outside observer.
http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/03/26/hi ... gy-ethics/
Last edited by HungryHobo on Thu Apr 02, 2015 9:08 pm UTC, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Trolly Probleem

I'm not the most empathetic person out there. When I feel sympathy, it is more of a mental connection (seeing myself in someone else's shoes) rather than an emotional connection. Am I psychopathic? I hope not...
If you are comfortable with a moral position that says it's better to let 500 children die because "you didn't create the situation", that sounds pretty psychopathic. Especially if you add in your apparent confusion about why 500 children's deaths should trouble you.

(And none of the "I refuse to make a decision" excuse, either. Inaction is a decision.)

I also noticed you (and others) did not actually respond to the problem.
It's not actually a very original topic on the forums. Some of us have already answered enough versions of these that we don't really care to explain ourselves yet again. It's more interesting to look at why surveys of groups of people choose the way they do or why others who did feel like answering this time around picked the answers they did.
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slinches
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Re: Trolly Probleem

HungryHobo wrote:Since other people are taking issue with the trolley examples lets go with something even more ridiculous but which has a better narrative: you're in a scenario a little like that of Bruce Willis in Armageddon but a smaller (still highly destructive) fragment of the asteroid is directly on course for one of the worlds largest cites(london, new york etc). Millions are about to die. You have the button that can set off a bomb on it's surface that will change it's course and divert it to hit a sparsely populated mountain range.

Again, prefect knowledge of outcomes is assumed here. Although, in this case it could easily be rephrased to something like "set off a bomb that will change its course slightly, very likely impacting a more sparsely populated area" without significantly affecting the intent.

Do you press the button to save the city?
The mountains aren't totally unpopulated, there's a few people with hunting cabins.
There's at least one person there.

If you and you loved ones were observers from outside the city/mountains and you weren't the individual how would you view someone who refused to press the button because he said he didn't want to take on personal responsiblity for a few deaths in the mountains?

The answer to this is that once someone has accepted the responsibility of controlling the button, they have chosen to act in the best interest of everyone involved. Therefore, anyone who then decided not to push the button would be intentionally making the choice to cause the greatest loss of life and consequently be deserving of contempt. I have no problem with someone who chooses not to accept that responsibility in the first place.

cphite
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Re: Trolly Probleem

gmalivuk wrote:
I'm not the most empathetic person out there. When I feel sympathy, it is more of a mental connection (seeing myself in someone else's shoes) rather than an emotional connection. Am I psychopathic? I hope not...
If you are comfortable with a moral position that says it's better to let 500 children die because "you didn't create the situation", that sounds pretty psychopathic. Especially if you add in your apparent confusion about why 500 children's deaths should trouble you.

(And none of the "I refuse to make a decision" excuse, either. Inaction is a decision.)

While I don't personally endorse it, it's entirely reasonable for someone to take the position that, by refusing to participate, they are not personally responsible for the outcome. There is a pretty huge difference between seeing five people die and actually killing one person yourself. And even if you rationalize that the ultimate responsibility falls on the evil madman who set up the scenario, if you pull the lever then you pulled the lever. It is a choice between being placed in a situation where five people died, or one where you actively ended a life. A lot of people can't accept the latter.

Me, I tend to fall on the "I didn't create the scenario, but I can influence the outcome to the least worst possible" line of thinking. But to be honest, even if I saved five (or five hundred) people by pulling that lever, that one death would haunt me for a very long time.

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Re: Trolly Probleem

It's one thing to say they're not comfortable throwing the switch, but here we've also got folks saying not pulling the switch is the best option. Even when it's 500-to-1 instead of only 5-to-1. And some of the justifications seem to imply that the 1 person isn't even really a factor. After all, if not creating the situation absolves you of responsibility for the outcome, shouldn't that remain the case no matter how small the cost gets? Inaction is a choice, and hypothetically you're in a position to choose here whether you put yourself in that position or not, so surely you bear *some* responsibility for the outcome whatever your choice?

I daresay that, whatever people may argue about their own decision, pretty much everyone else would judge rather harshly someone who stood idly by and let a school full of children die a preventable death.
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Re: Trolly Problem

gmalivuk wrote:If you are comfortable with a moral position that says it's better to let 500 children die because "you didn't create the situation", that sounds pretty psychopathic. Especially if you add in your apparent confusion about why 500 children's deaths should trouble you.

Perhaps, but consider a similar scenario:
An evil villian has planted a bomb in a bus full of people. You are sitting on the subway with a concealed gun. The villian says the bomb will detonate unless you kill the person sitting next to you within the next 5 minutes. Assume the villian is incapable of lying (complete certainty of outcomes is part of the original problem). The person next to you is completely unaware of the situation.
Is it psychopathic to not shoot?

The reason my response to 500 children scenario is "confusing" is because it doesn't follow the same logic. My previous responses hinged on the idea that human life is not quantifiable. 1 death is equally bad as 5 deaths. The right thing to do is to not cause deaths. There is no way to prevent death from other causes, so that is something everyone has to live with. The fact that I would deviate from this principle in the 500 children scenario means there is a utilitarian side of me that kicked in.

gmalivuk wrote:It's not actually a very original topic on the forums. Some of us have already answered enough versions of these that we don't really care to explain ourselves yet again. It's more interesting to look at why surveys of groups of people choose the way they do or why others who did feel like answering this time around picked the answers they did.

I understand, but more data wouldn't hurt. I could have just as easily not provided my responses, but then you would have lost out on a good discussion. It's unconstructive to challenge opposing viewpoints without giving your own*. Responding to the problem will lay out your position in a straightforward way.

*Especially if all positions have inherent downsides, it's easy to criticize but hard to offer a solution.

gmalivuk wrote:I daresay that, whatever people may argue about their own decision, pretty much everyone else would judge rather harshly someone who stood idly by and let a school full of children die a preventable death.

Is the social aftermath relevant? For me, it's not. Whether society values one action over another should not impact my own perspective of the situation. If you lived in a society that condoned homophobia/abortion, you aren't going to assume they are right.
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Re: Trolly Problem

If deaths aren't quantifiable, you can't say some number of them is equal to some other number of them.

Also, you're saying that it's still wrong to pull the switch if the default rail leads to the destruction of an entire city, for example.
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Re: Trolly Problem

With all due respect, gmalivuk, sometimes you seem more intent on arguing rather than contributing to the discussion. For all intents and purposes, if every quantity is equal, then the notion of quantity is meaningless. Would you like me to change my original word choice or something?

I'm not saying anything is wrong in the absolute sense. I'm saying I would probably choose not to do it. If someone chose to flip the switch, I'm not going to accuse them of moral fault.
The movies always portray the hero as the guy who kills all the baddies and saves millions from being nuked. It desensitize us to the fact that the "baddies" are also people. If the villains happen to be innocent people mind controlled by an alien you can't reach, it would become much more troubling.
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Re: Trolly Problem

More troubling, yes, but would not generally change most people's feelings about which is ultimately the right choice of action.

And regardless of your terminology, my point in poking at your notion of equality is that I don't think you actually believe the claim you made. If one death is equivalent to 5 (or 500), then it implies you wouldn't be able to choose who to save (or wouldn't care about your decision), if the problem were altered so that doing nothing lets six (or 501) people die, but by doing something you could save either 1 or 5(00) lives.

Would you really be indifferent to that choice?
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Re: Trolly Problem

Well there is definitely uncertainty in all my responses. We'll never know what I'll really choose if placed in such a situation. I'm just doing my best to imagine myself in those scenarios.

gmalivuk wrote:you wouldn't be able to choose who to save (or wouldn't care about your decision)

In my perspective, there is only one group who needs saving. The person on the other track is not in any danger. They will only be put in danger if I choose to save the others.
It is impossible to "not care" about my decision. Even if I look at the situation and don't process anything with my brain, the path of least resistance would be to not do anything, which in the context, is a decision.

gmalivuk wrote:if the problem were altered so that doing nothing lets six (or 501) people die, but by doing something you could save either 1 or 5(00) lives.

Would you really be indifferent to that choice?

I'm not indifferent about what I should do. I'm indifferent to the number of people (though not as much to the type of people).
I don't mess with things if I don't know what is the correct solution. I don't know what is the correct solution because the number of lives don't matter, just the fact that there will be lives lost. Because I don't know the correct solution, I won't touch with the lever.

Let me ask you a question:
Suppose you learned in the news that somebody pulled the lever (ie. caused one bystander to die, but saved multiple victims). What would be your initial reaction? Suppose instead you learned that multiple victims had been killed because someone refused to kill bystander to save them. Would your reaction change?
(Assume of course that the media doesn't paint it one way or another, just gave you a list of who died, who lived, who was victim, who was bystander.)
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Re: Trolly Problem

If you don't mess with anything, then *all* the people die in my version. Is that really what you're saying you'd do? You would rather let 501 people die than let 1 person die, who was going to die anyway?
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Re: Trolly Problem

Suppose instead of the 5 people dying by train, it is 5 million people dying from hunger. You can feed all 5 million if you kill 1 million others. Would you do it? The crucial point is that by doing something to help the 5 people in need, you purposely kill someone who was not in danger in the first place. It's akin to cannibalism among a group of people marooned on an island. Why gives you the right to kill someone so the others can survive?

You didn't say, "it is no more morally pressing than my really contrived, and artificial, fictional form of world hunger", though, you said, "I did not create the situation, so as far as I'm concerned, it is no more morally pressing than world hunger or a pandemic."

The troubling bit is not, simply, the choices you made, but the logic you are employing in your choices - any moral argument that involves pandemics and famine not being morally pressing because, "Well, I didn't cause it", seems to be one that has little to do with morality at all. Allow me to demonstrate using equally contrived means as your modified version of hunger:

(Fairly acceptable to me, though I may not agree)
I would not pull the lever because by doing so, I am directly causing the death of another by deliberate action that otherwise would not happen - even though it would cause more to die than if I did act, nonetheless it is moral to not act, albeit tragic.

(Unacceptable)
I would not pull the lever because, with more dead, there are more corpse shoes for me to steal - I love the boots of the freshly dead.

The point of this absurd example: both arrive at the same conclusion, one is severely problematic. The issue I have is not what you decided, the issue I have is why you decided it. And, as for absurdity, I would argue that world hunger and pandemic not being morally pressing is, probably, a more heinous view than "Love me some corpse shoes".

I'm not indifferent about what I should do. I'm indifferent to the number of people (though not as much to the type of people).
I don't mess with things if I don't know what is the correct solution. I don't know what is the correct solution because the number of lives don't matter, just the fact that there will be lives lost. Because I don't know the correct solution, I won't touch with the lever.

How do you do anything of a moral nature then? In what situation do you know the correct solution?

So, there is no number of lives for which you would pull the lever? Here are some fun variants to consider:

1.) There are a billion babies on track 1, they all die if you don't pull the lever. On track 2 there is a very sick man, if he survives, he will die one minute afterwards due to entirely unrelated and unpreventable causes - do you pull the lever?

2.) There are 5 people on track 1, 1 on track 2 - you can pull the lever, do nothing, or try to rescue the 5 people; you may, or may not, succeed at rescuing them, but, should you fail, you will perish also.

3.) The same as 2, but now: it takes time to rescue people. You can almost surely save 1 and get away - you will almost surely perish if you try to save all 5.

4.) The same as 2, but you definitely fail and rescue no one.

5.) 5 on track 1, 1 on track 2: there is a 50/50 if you pull the lever that no one dies or it works exactly as expected and swaps tracks? What about if there is 0.0000001% chance it saves all, but else is just swapping?

Finally, if no life is worth more than any other, or any other quantity, would you agree with the following:

1.) Assassinating a single politician and stopping a war immediately is as heinous as every civilian death caused, on both sides, of that war should it continue?
2.) Rescue workers that take extreme risk to save others are not making a moral choice, especially from external perspectives, especially when they perish - since, by your principle, the right choice cannot be known, so they ought not act?
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Re: Trolly Problem

This is about perfect information. His answer on the other hand reflects reality, doesn't it. I know that people are dying all over the planet, millions maybe. From preventable causes. We pay lip service to the idea of doing something about it. But we don't. We rescue people from raging rivers. In one sense, due to proximity, these are our loved ones. Yet millions will die from some evil or the other and we will sleep like babies and never think about it. So, do numbers matter or is it our connections that matter?

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Re: Trolly Problem

morriswalters wrote:This is about perfect information. His answer on the other hand reflects reality, doesn't it. I know that people are dying all over the planet, millions maybe. From preventable causes. We pay lip service to the idea of doing something about it. But we don't. We rescue people from raging rivers. In one sense, due to proximity, these are our loved ones. Yet millions will die from some evil or the other and we will sleep like babies and never think about it. So, do numbers matter or is it our connections that matter?

We don't all sleep like babies and we don't all not do something; and many do a lot - no one can do everything.
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Re: Trolly Problem

Forest Goose wrote:We don't all sleep like babies and we don't all not do something; and many do a lot - no one can do everything.
Perfectly true. But given the world you live in, you will have no choice but to always save the lesser number, because it is all you can do. The original test was about perfect information and absolutes and keeping the decision tree small. The OP's adding complexity doesn't really reveal anything other than the fact that as the decision tree gets larger the answers become messy. Anyway.../shrug/

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Re: Trolly Probleem

gmalivuk wrote:It's one thing to say they're not comfortable throwing the switch, but here we've also got folks saying not pulling the switch is the best option. Even when it's 500-to-1 instead of only 5-to-1. And some of the justifications seem to imply that the 1 person isn't even really a factor.

Let's look at it from another angle... how many lives saved would it take for you to murder someone? For example, if the evil villain calls you while you're riding the bus and says that unless you pull the gun out from under your seat and murder the person next to you, X number of random people will be killed - and you believe him - how many does X need to be for you to pull the trigger?

I think you'll find that there is a range of X for different people; and for some people, there is no value that would make them pull the trigger.

After all, if not creating the situation absolves you of responsibility for the outcome, shouldn't that remain the case no matter how small the cost gets? Inaction is a choice, and hypothetically you're in a position to choose here whether you put yourself in that position or not, so surely you bear *some* responsibility for the outcome whatever your choice?

I guess that depends on where the scenario started... if you're on the train minding your own business and you're thrust into this position to make a decision, it's not entirely unreasonable that someone might see their choices as being a) do nothing while some madman murders a bunch of people; or b) murder someone themselves.

I daresay that, whatever people may argue about their own decision, pretty much everyone else would judge rather harshly someone who stood idly by and let a school full of children die a preventable death.

But we're not talking about someone standing idly by... we're talking about someone who's been thrust into making a horrible decision, presumably one that is completely unexpected and nothing they ever imagined they'd have to decide.

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Re: Trolly Problem

Forest Goose,
When I talked about world hunger, I was talking about the consequences of world hunger compared to the consequences of not pulling the lever. I'm not drawing a direct analogy between the two scenarios. World hunger is nothing like the trolly dilemma because there is obviously no need to kill people to feed others. It would be like having nobody on the other track, in which case the decision is no-brainer.

Morriswalters understood my point. As people living in privileged societies, we go about our lives completely ignorant about who has died every day somewhere else on the planet. Sure, there are many people who care, and who are working hard to make a difference, but be honest: How many people are truly worried about children in Africa (excuse the cliche) the same way they are worried about problems in their local community (eg racial discrimination)?

The fundamental question is: Why should we save lives?
For many other people here, life is a commodity. A very precious commodity, but a commodity nonetheless. If you treat life as a commodity then obviously there is an objective way to maximize your "gain". If both choices are equal in terms of gain, you would flip a coin (as gmalivuk sort of implied through his responses).
For me, every life is a priceless gift that must be cherished. If a bully steals from 5 people, it does not give me the right to steal from 1 person, even if it means I can return the 5 gifts that are stolen. That being said, I did mention I am not completely indifferent to the type of person I would be "stealing" from. If I had to steal from the bully to return the gifts, I would still not have the right to do so, but I would say "screw it" and do so anyways because it would mean he/she can no longer create more of these situations.

My reasoning is not as far field as you may think. If the utilitarian way of thinking is clearly the right one, then the atomic bombs dropped on Japan wouldn't have been so controversial.
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Re: Trolly Problem

Cradarc wrote:If both choices are equal in terms of gain, you would flip a coin (as gmalivuk sort of implied through his responses).
But you never actually addressed that question: Would you really be indifferent to the choice between saving 1 life and saving 500 (in the situation where doing nothing causes all 501 of them to die)?

If the utilitarian way of thinking is clearly the right one, then the atomic bombs dropped on Japan wouldn't have been so controversial.
It would still be controversial, because unlike the trolley problems where we're assumed to have perfect knowledge of the outcomes, it's not entirely clear that dropping the bombs really was the option that resulted in the smallest loss of life.
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Re: Trolly Problem

gmvalivuk,
If flipping the lever doesn't kill anyone who wasn't already going to die, then I would do it. In that case, I am not killing anyone, rather I am saving some of the people with no additional side-effect.

The controversy over the atomic bombs was not entirely based on numbers.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debate_ove ... d_Nagasaki

You also have avoided my previous question:
Cradarc wrote:Suppose you learned in the news that somebody pulled the lever (ie. caused one bystander to die, but saved multiple victims). What would be your initial reaction? Suppose instead you learned that multiple victims had been killed because someone refused to kill bystander to save them. Would your reaction change?
(Assume of course that the media doesn't paint it one way or another, just gave you a list of who died, who lived, who was victim, who was bystander.)

Like I said before, it would be nice if the people probing me for explanations can state their own opinions explicitly. Because the decision is binary, knowing the uncomfortable parts of your own choice will help you understand why someone might choose differently.
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Re: Trolly Problem

gmvalivuk,
If flipping the lever doesn't kill anyone who wasn't already going to die, then I would do it. In that case, I am not killing anyone, rather I am saving some of the people with no additional side-effect.
But my question was whether you would care at all about the difference between saving 500 people and allowing one to die or saving just 1 and letting the 500 die.

Like I said before, it would be nice if the people probing me for explanations can state their own opinions explicitly. Because the decision is binary, knowing the uncomfortable parts of your own choice will help you understand why someone might choose differently.
I don't necessarily know what I'd do in all these situations, and I also don't feel like I have much obligation to answer your latest question when you still haven't addressed mine.

But also also, it's like Forest Goose said: the reasoning behind choices is where the actual interesting discussion lies. And so if I wouldn't be comfortable pulling the lever in your original problem, for the 1:5 scenario or even for the 1:500 scenario, I still vehemently disagree with your reasoning that there is no quantitative difference between 1 death and 500.
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Re: Trolly Problem

Cradarc wrote:Like I said before, it would be nice if the people probing me for explanations can state their own opinions explicitly. Because the decision is binary, knowing the uncomfortable parts of your own choice will help you understand why someone might choose differently.
They could only give you an intellectual reason. In RL you would be hard pressed to show how you made any choice that you made. The choice is either predetermined and you will do it without thinking, or the choice would require so much thought that the event would be over before you could decide. Its the reason some people run into fires or jump on grenades. The choice is a product of your emotions and makeup. And if you don't like yours it can be changed. The military does it all the time. The most interesting one is variation D. It's very close to the reasoning behind murder suicides or suicide bombings and revenge killings.

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Re: Trolly Problem

Cradarc wrote:When I talked about world hunger, I was talking about the consequences of world hunger compared to the consequences of not pulling the lever. I'm not drawing a direct analogy between the two scenarios. World hunger is nothing like the trolly dilemma because there is obviously no need to kill people to feed others. It would be like having nobody on the other track, in which case the decision is no-brainer.

Order of conversation:

1.) You imply world hunger is not morally pressing,
2.) I say it is,
3.) You supply contrived variation of world hunger to make it like the trolley problem,
4.) I point out it is contrived and has nothing to do with anything,
5.) You respond to, it seems, tell me that it was indeed contrived and that world hunger is different.

In other words, none of your replies have anything to do with the original issue, the implication: "World hunger and pandemics are not morally pressing" (or not to great degree). Do you, or do you not, find them morally pressing - how we act has nothing to do with this (if that is the sole determinant for if they are morally pressing, then there wouldn't appear to be "morality" to be "pressing" - even if we don't treat them as pressing, they would still be, or not be, morally pressing.)

Morriswalters understood my point. As people living in privileged societies, we go about our lives completely ignorant about who has died every day somewhere else on the planet. Sure, there are many people who care, and who are working hard to make a difference, but be honest: How many people are truly worried about children in Africa (excuse the cliche) the same way they are worried about problems in their local community (eg racial discrimination)?

What is the point of that point? That some people - lots of people - don't give half a shit and use the suffering of others as an excuse to express outrage without action does not entail anything about what should be done, if anything, I would say that that indicates a lot of people aren't as good as suspected (not to say that they are immoral, but, perhaps, not as moral as they suspect). But that's all fairly ancillary, in the first place, the question is not, "How many people care?", the question is, "Do you care? Do you believe you are obligated to not care because you are uninvolved? Do you believe distance obviates you of moral impetus?" The word, "you", is the important one, as you are the one justifying/exemplifying your logic with this.

The fundamental question is: Why should we save lives?

If you had asked, "Is Beethoven's music beautiful?", replied with, "No, because who listens to classical anyways.", then popped in some Justin Bieber, threw on a pair of aviator sunglasses and some dayglo clothes, and began doing an Arsenio Hall fist pump...the question would not be, "Is music art?", it would not be, even, "Can Bieber be Art as much as Beethoven?", it would be your taste.

As for the original problem, the question does not appear to be, "Why should we save lives?", I'm not seeing anything here that questions if we should save lives, nor am I seeing anything clarifying why we should save lives. A man is drowning in a river, you can save him by pressing a button, there are no consequences beside the saving of the man; apply the trolley problem.

For many other people here, life is a commodity. A very precious commodity, but a commodity nonetheless. If you treat life as a commodity then obviously there is an objective way to maximize your "gain".

I object to your use of the word, "commodity", especially, "commodity nonetheless", you appear to be starting with a vague non-dictionary notion of that word as meaning, "Thing that has some nature of value", then, you appear to begin vaguely implying that life is being treated much more so as what the word implies in the sense of the uglier sense of, "Treating people like a commodity". --If you object to this, then, explain how you call life a "priceless gift", yet only see "other people" as considering it as a "commodity".

I would also, strongly, object to the word "your" as in "your gain" - I'm not seeing how anything is "my gain".

If both choices are equal in terms of gain, you would flip a coin (as gmalivuk sort of implied through his responses).
For me, every life is a priceless gift that must be cherished.

Was the vague implications of your language all there to maximize the contrast with your view of "life is a priceless gift that must be cherished"? It seems like that is what you are trying to do. I will point out that "life is a..." is, honestly, a nebulous statement or your reasoning is somewhat peculiar, as in, you seem to be saying, either:

1.) The equivalent of: "My opponents view crimes as undesirable, highly undesirable, but merely undesirable all the same - they treat it as something to be solved with punishment, reforms, and rehabilitation. But, for me, crime is morally reprehensible of the highest order and should be met with justice!", which, honestly, says nothing, it certainly doesn't suddenly justify whatever supposed solution that individual is proposing.,

or 2.) You can never take a life...but not pulling the lever is a choice, you are still deciding to let someone die, to take a life. In other words, your principle doesn't really support either action. Even if you want to insist that your ethics trump the utilitarian view (which I'm not saying is the ultimate ethics to begin with...), your ethics provide no direction, so they certainly don't override the utilitarian solution since they support neither case (on that basis alone). I would say that saving 5 -vs- 1 is, at least, a prima facie obligation - I would certainly say that it is, in absence of any overriding, as equally acceptable as the alternative (meaning: it is, definitely, not wrong, lacking additional reasons supplied, and, I'm struggling to, in that situation, see why saving 1 is preferable to 5 - even if not morally imperative, from the angle of other considerations, at least).

If a bully steals from 5 people, it does not give me the right to steal from 1 person, even if it means I can return the 5 gifts that are stolen.

That's not an equivalent, though, an equivalent would be: a bully tells me they will steal from five people - that I know nothing else about - unless I ask them not to, in which case, they will steal from one other person (that I also know nothing else about); moreover, that bully will steal the exact same thing from each individual, they will not steal more from the single person to compensate for not stealing from five people.

Going by that, an actual equivalent, I'm not seeing anything in your reply that helps out, either way.

That being said, I did mention I am not completely indifferent to the type of person I would be "stealing" from. If I had to steal from the bully to return the gifts, I would still not have the right to do so, but I would say "screw it" and do so anyways because it would mean he/she can no longer create more of these situations.

I, honestly, fail to see how this corresponds:

1.) Stealing from the bully prevents more such situations how?
2.) Are you not still stealing from the bully on a moral principle, that one ought prevent the bully from doing the same in the future, anyway? You seem to be saying, "even without the moral right to do it, I would do it for overriding moral reasons", that doesn't make much sense to me: you're doing the wrong thing because its the right thing (this would make sense if "wrong" and "right" were from two different ethical theories, but it is confusing if they are from the same theory...not impossible, but I would say a lot of elaboration is required to make that work out sensibly).
3.) How does this scenario, with its villain, possibility of prevention in the future, and reaquiring of things lost relate to anything else in the discussion?
4.) If a bully steals \$20 from me, then a court tells them they must pay me back, is the court wrong for so doing? I'm not seeing anything delineating "steal from the bully to recover the gifts" and "recover the gifts, which are not the bully's property, from the bully" - while not salient, really, to this, how is recovering stolen property stealing from the thief?

My reasoning is not as far field as you may think. If the utilitarian way of thinking is clearly the right one, then the atomic bombs dropped on Japan wouldn't have been so controversial.

Problems:

1.) The people deciding to drop the bomb did not have perfect information - perhaps the Japanese would have only fought harder, thus, killing more; perhaps the plane would crash, the bomb be stolen by the Japanese and used against us; perhaps our allies would be appalled by such weaponry and band together to ensure no one could ever use such things again (the threat of such power overwhelming the reasons for their fighting in the first place);etc. If everyone perfectly knew, in advance, the exact outcomes, then I'm doubting it would have been as controversial.

2.) The amount of controversy doesn't mean anything (,or you haven't justified that it does). Being controversial doesn't entail that it is not morally right, perhaps most people are morally lacking and do not know what is right? Perhaps people are responding to a tragedy and wish none of it had to occur? If I shoot someone in absolute perfect self-defense (God opens the sky and agrees, for example), I'm fairly certain it would still be reasonable to have a sense of guilt and sadness over having done so, psychology and controversy do not dictate morality, nor the converse.

3.) One need not accept that morality is utilitarian to accept that some choices can be utilitarian when nothing else applies.

-----

Let us shift the axiology of your setup and ask what one would, and should, then do:

1.) Five irreplaceable works of art will be burned, unless I pull a lever, in which case one will be burned.
2.) Five theorems of mathematics will be deleted from all of our minds by alien technology, we will never be able to relearn them, but, if I pull a lever, only one will be removed.
3.) Five serial killers armed with machine guns and grudges (and doped up on super-aggression serum X) will escape from prison, but if I pull a lever, only one will escape.

I'm struggling to see why any of these cases should be answered differently. (as for the third, the value is in the loss of life, and other damage, they will cause - shouldn't your principle tell you to not pull the lever, since you will, then, be responsible for the one killers actions? Does it?)
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Joined: Fri Nov 06, 2009 10:12 pm UTC

Re: Trolly Problem

Fun fact; the US government already has rules on what to do in (a variation of) the trolley problem. If a plane is having trouble, the pilots are to take actions that save the most lives even if said action results in deaths on the ground. So if a jumbo jet has the choice on crashing in a field or landing on your car, you are SOL.

Actuary here. As someone who actually does this math for a living (well, not me specifically but my profession), I can say the math gets... weird. Going by quality life-years as your metric, a young white girl is worth more than a young black girl, but an OLD white woman is worth less than an old black woman. This is because black people have higher mortality than white people when younger, but LOWER mortality when older. So a black person is less likely to live to 70 but more likely to live to 100.

Anyway, my personal ethics don't go by life-years; it goes by a variant of benefit to society. So consequentialism, I guess. If you have a choice between a bus full of retirees versus a teenage girl, you ask "is society better off with an extra bus full of retirees or an extra teenage girl?".

morriswalters
Posts: 7073
Joined: Thu Jun 03, 2010 12:21 am UTC

Re: Trolly Problem

Forest Goose wrote:I would say that saving 5 -vs- 1 is, at least, a prima facie obligation - I would certainly say that it is, in absence of any overriding, as equally acceptable as the alternative (meaning: it is, definitely, not wrong, lacking additional reasons supplied, and, I'm struggling to, in that situation, see why saving 1 is preferable to 5 - even if not morally imperative, from the angle of other considerations, at least).
One rationale is that once you choose, you accept the responsibility, it is you who caused someone to die versus merely being an observer. The conflict is between the intellectual sense of morality, the "I should", versus the emotional recognition as the one being someone like me and the almost universal view that killing is morally wrong. Passivity is the path of least resistance. The cheapest emotionally.

The emotional component can't be denied. Consider, your child sits on a chair in front of you. You have a button. He/she will die if you don't press it. However if you do an unknown number of other children will die. What do you do? There is no passive solution. You must act. What is moral? If numbers are meaningful then you should always kill your child, at worst it's an even trade.