Trolley Problem

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polbert
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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby polbert » Sat Apr 11, 2015 9:11 pm UTC

Qaanol wrote:You and your family are trying to decide which of these two countries to move to. Let’s say you got a great job offer from a company with locations in both countries and nowhere else. Everyone in your family agrees you should take the job, and they all want to move with you. There are no overriding factors and the two countries are otherwise equally good places to live. No one in either country will try to convince you or your family to adopt any particular viewpoint.


Qaanol wrote:So, given that this is simply the way it is, and given that you have found these two particular countries to be more appealing than anywhere else, you are trying to decide where you want to live and work and raise your child.

Recall that in the first country each person has a 1.8% chance of being killed by a trolley in any 18-year period. That makes for about a 95% chance that you, your spouse, and your baby will all survive the next 18 years.

In the other country, each person has a 16.5% chance of dying in 18 years, which makes for about a 58% chance that all three of you will survive. That’s a 42% chance that at least one of your family members will be killed by a trolley before your baby turns 18 in the second country, compared with 5% in the first country.


Cradarc wrote:Qaanol,
No matter how good the job offer is, I would not move to a country that openly condones the killing of random people.


I doubt such subtle numbers are going to convince any adherent to change their intuitions, so let's take a page from Cradarc's other thread and make it less subtle.

There are only two countries in the entire universe - no wilderness in which you might disappear into. Both countries face a situation wherein, in 10 years or so, they will face one of two options. Either:

  1. 5/6ths of the population will die, via some known cause, or
  2. The government can use advanced technology to redirect this cause, killing the other 1/6th of the population.

Who belongs in which group is randomly chosen and unknown beforehand; there is no way to game which group you, or any of your family members, belong in.

The exact details of the event are unimportant; you could even imagine it as a national trolley problem if you want.

The good news is that society is advanced enough that there will be no secondary problems - no one else will die, or suffer a lowered standard of living, even if 5/6ths of the population disappear. You just have to choose: the conveniently named Country 1 is dedicated to option 1, while Country 2 to option 2.

Nothing else is different about either country; you would have an equivalent lifestyle either way, both before and after the event. The only thing you have to choose whether to subject yourself and each family member to an 83.3% or 16.7% probability of death within ten years.


I contend that anyone who chooses Option 1 for a small trolley problem but Country 2 for this large trolley problem is suffering a failure of scope. You know that 5 million deaths are worse than 1 million deaths, yet somehow that does not scale down to 5 deaths being worse than 1 death. The only reason such inconsistent preferences have not yet screwed you over is because you are not personally exposed to such situations. (They do indirectly screw society over, make no mistake.)

Meanwhile, I contend that choosing Country 1 is nothing less than idiotic, for obvious reasons, and your children will not thank you for it.


Fun alternatives:

  1. There is only one country in the universe, and you are its leader. You and your immediate friends/family are excluded from the problem, and will survive either way. You get to choose which option the country will take.
  2. The cause of death is not some potentially redirected force, but some AI holding the 5/6ths hostage, unless the country's military directly kills the other 1/6. (The military hardware is advanced enough that this would similarly take the same 2 minutes; the only difference is in the framing.) How the AI acts in the future is known to be independent of your decision now.
  3. The cause of death is some strange disease from the 1/6th that will spread and infect the other 5/6th, coincidentally within minutes of the two groups being identified.
  4. The disease in alternative c is temporary zombieism/rage virus; the 1/6th will hunt and kill the other 5/6ths, then revert to their human state.
Last edited by polbert on Mon Apr 13, 2015 7:35 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby Qaanol » Sat Apr 11, 2015 9:53 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:
Qaanol wrote:That is…not at all what most people mean by the word “morality”.
Replace judge with "God".

First, that is a huge narrowing of the definition, so it certainly does not carry the same meaning as the original. Furthermore, it is still nowhere near narrow enough overall, and at the same time it is far too restrictive in other ways. After your word-replacement, we’ve gone from “a judge” to “a God”. Let’s suppose the god is Eris, who embodies strife discord and chaos. See the first problem?

The consistency-based definition with your modification entails that only gods can judge morality, so the most that humans can do is say what they think each particular god would claim about the morality of a given action. Moreover, humans could not say that one god is more moral than another, and thus humans would have no moral basis for deciding which gods to support. All gods would necessarily be morally equivalent in the eyes of a human. See the second problem?

I mean, if people actually believed that morality came exclusively from the judgment of a god, then all it would take is some charlatan writing a book that convinces people to support a sadistic god, and terrible things would happen. I mean, can you imagine if millions of people started basing their lives around a god who did things like, I don’t know, ordering people to kill their own children[1]? Or ripping up pregnant women and dashing infants to pieces[2]? Or drowning almost everyone alive[3]? Or supporting genocide after genocide? Or…

Okay, I concede the point. Your definition captures exactly what way too many people think they believe to be morality.
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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby slinches » Sat Apr 11, 2015 9:56 pm UTC

Okay, elasto, in the situation that through no action of your own you are thrust into the exclusive position to choose between two immoral acts with no other available options, I would choose least immoral option. As I would hope everyone would. In that scenario, the default position of the lever isn't even a factor because the problem assumes you are responsible for the outcome no matter which decision you make.

But those sorts of situations just don't happen in real life. A more "realistic" scenario is the hospital administrator who has 5 dying patients and a healthy matching organ donor. The supposedly least immoral decision to kill one to save five is nowhere near as clear once all of the consequences of reality are involved. And in real car/plane crash, there would either be insufficient time for a passenger to recognize the situation and make an informed decision or there would be enough time to find a path that probably won't kill any innocent bystanders.

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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Apr 11, 2015 10:08 pm UTC

slinches wrote:Okay, elasto, in the situation that through no action of your own you are thrust into the exclusive position to choose between two immoral acts with no other available options, I would choose least immoral option. As I would hope everyone would. In that scenario, the default position of the lever isn't even a factor because the problem assumes you are responsible for the outcome no matter which decision you make.
Yes, by assuming you're the only one able to pull the lever, that is what the traditional trolley problem implies.

But those sorts of situations just don't happen in real life. A more "realistic" scenario is the hospital administrator who has 5 dying patients and a healthy matching organ donor. The supposedly least immoral decision to kill one to save five is nowhere near as clear once all of the consequences of reality are involved. And in real car/plane crash, there would either be insufficient time for a passenger to recognize the situation and make an informed decision or there would be enough time to find a path that probably won't kill any innocent bystanders.
The fact that someone wouldn't have time to weigh their options in real life doesn't mean we can't still make a moral distinction between those options.
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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby morriswalters » Sun Apr 12, 2015 12:20 am UTC

Qaanol wrote:Okay, I concede the point. Your definition captures exactly what way too many people think they believe to be morality.
You are way too gloomy. If it helps you, posit a just God, no murder Gods allowed. It relieves the individual from having to be responsible for their choices. The assumption that any particular moral choice might be somehow implicit in the Universe is much the same in my point of view. It just appeals to a different authority.

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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby Qaanol » Sun Apr 12, 2015 12:55 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:
Qaanol wrote:Okay, I concede the point. Your definition captures exactly what way too many people think they believe to be morality.
You are way too gloomy. If it helps you, posit a just God, no murder Gods allowed. It relieves the individual from having to be responsible for their choices. The assumption that any particular moral choice might be somehow implicit in the Universe is much the same in my point of view. It just appeals to a different authority.

That does not help at all. What do you mean by “just”? Something like “fair”? Or “equitable”? Or…“moral”?

If the only god in existence happens to support murder and genocide and rape and slavery, then by the definition you gave, all of those things would necessarily be moral—at least when done at the command of the god.

…and if we wanted to base our legal system on this “morality”, then we would have to deal with criminal defenses that state in their entirety, “God told me to do it.”
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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby morriswalters » Sun Apr 12, 2015 2:19 am UTC

Qaanol wrote:That does not help at all. What do you mean by “just”? Something like “fair”? Or “equitable”? Or…“moral”?
The trite answer is to define it however you choose, it doesn't really matter to me. I don't believe in any of those contexts, other than as a response to living in the world with you. What that means is that I will react to you as if you were me. It assumes that you act in the envelope of what I consider normal behavior. That isn't a perfect solution since you may not fit in that envelope.

In the case of the trolly problem it means that the default choice is to save the five. What I do if the information I have available to me is different, will change. If for instance my child were the one on the track, the other five should probably have their affairs in order. But my choice would be moral to me since my child is more important to me than you are.

I have no reason to believe this is true other than my experience. It seems to be how people act.
Qaanol wrote:If the only god in existence happens to support murder and genocide and rape and slavery, then by the definition you gave, all of those things would necessarily be moral—at least when done at the command of the god.
Seems reasonable. I was simply pointing out that a significant portion of society feels that way.

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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby Forest Goose » Sun Apr 12, 2015 2:37 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:But my choice would be moral to me since my child is more important to me than you are.


This is deeply problematic - it would be one thing to argue that your choice would be "acceptable", but to call it "moral" on that basis doesn't track very well. How do you prevent the argument, "X is important for me" to justify something as "Moral"? What about, "I shot all the cops up because my wife's freedom was more important than her serving a jail sentence for murder to me" and "I robbed the store to get an xbox because it was more important to me that I have one than the store owner did"?

I'm sure you don't mean for those to get a pass, but that's the thorny problem of ethics: do the reasons you state allow things you don't want; it does not suffice to simply not intend them. What you stated, as stated, certainly allows for horrible consequences, provided the person genuinely feels that way (and there is no lack of evidence that some people believe genuinely shitty things...)
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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby Tirian » Sun Apr 12, 2015 4:15 am UTC

Valuing the life of a loved one is a valid moral response to the Heinz dilemma, although pre-conventional decision-making is admittedly not particularly mature.

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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby morriswalters » Sun Apr 12, 2015 4:49 am UTC

There would have to be a compelling reason for me consciously to allow my child to die. Something that would make the value of the 5 greater than my love for my child. I admit to the possibility that such a thing exists, but I haven't seen it to this point. Relate how it wouldn't be moral in the trolly problem to make that choice.

Shooting a cop to save my wife is a specious idea, it implies that I am stupid enough to believe that a shootout could fix anything. And most normal people don't think that way. And if you read the post your second suggestion is odd.
Tirian wrote:Valuing the life of a loved one is a valid moral response to the Heinz dilemma, although pre-conventional decision-making is admittedly not particularly mature.
I had never heard of it to this point. And given a brief reading of the concept have decided that I haven't missed anything. I did find this critique interesting since it follows a line that interests me.
Other psychologists have questioned the assumption that moral action is primarily a result of formal reasoning. Social intuitionists such as Jonathan Haidt, for example, argue that individuals often make moral judgments without weighing concerns such as fairness, law, human rights, or abstract ethical values. Thus the arguments analyzed by Kohlberg and other rationalist psychologists could be considered post hoc rationalizations of intuitive decisions; moral reasoning may be less relevant to moral action than Kohlberg's theory suggests.[11]

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby Cradarc » Sun Apr 12, 2015 6:49 pm UTC

(This is response to Elasto from previous page)
Spoiler:
My (relevant) moral principles are:
1. Saving people when you have the ability to do so is the moral thing to do.
2. Consciously killing someone is an immoral thing to do.

The difference between the plane/car vs he trolley is that the loss of lives is uncertain. The trolley problem guarantees that a particular person will die if you choose one action.

Perhaps these hypotheticals would help:
The 5 people on the main tracks are tied to the tracks, but the person standing on the side track is free to move around. If I divert the train, the person on the side track could theoretically move out of the way.
In that case I would flip the lever, even though there is still a possibility that the one person might die. The reason being, by flipping the lever, I am not sealing that person's fate. I am not choosing to kill him, even though his life is put in danger.

Suppose a genocide is happening on the other side of the world. You are given one fact:
Case A: "For every person you kill in the next 24 hours, 2 people will be spared from the genocide."
Case B: "For every person you smack with a baseball bat in the next 24 hours, 2 people will be spared from the genocide."

In Case A, I would not go on a killing spree. In Case B, I would go around smacking people with a baseball bat (making the best effort to not kill anyone and apologizing and explaining the situation). It is very possible that I could kill someone with a baseball bat, but the act of hitting someone with a baseball bat is not equivalent to killing that person.

Edit:
To clarify what I was saying earlier about the random switch flipping. That is the situation cast as a trolley problem, where people are guaranteed to die. In that case, it would be like me accidentally pushing a switch that caused the trolley to come down the tracks. So whoever dies would be the result of unintentional killing, while flipping the switch would be intentional killing.



I just want to clarify, the discussion with Morriswalters is not about objective morality right? It's about personal values of a particular human over others.
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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby morriswalters » Sun Apr 12, 2015 7:55 pm UTC

There isn't a lot of discussion. But yes, it would seem to be a waste to me to discuss this
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Re: Trolly Problem

Postby DaBigCheez » Sun Apr 12, 2015 8:05 pm UTC

Cradarc wrote:My principles dictate I should not willingly cause the death of a person. If I don't flip the lever, who/whatever caused the trolley to go down the track caused the death of some number of people. If I flip the lever, I will cause the death of either 1 or 5 people. So to stay consistent with my principle, I will not flip the lever.


Reading this clarified something somewhat for me - most notably, the concept of "causation". Would you say then, Cradarc, that you are concerned for the purposes of morality whether you are the proximate cause of someone's death - and that, as such, you find it immoral to enter the "chain of responsibility" in such an event?

I feel like if this is correct, it gives me more insight into your position than I had before. There can be disagreement about whether walking away from the lever/not pulling the lever is also an action that constitutes a proximate cause/entry into the chain of causation, but an axiom or position of "it is immoral to be the proximate cause of someone's death" seems more clearly stated to me.

I suspect that there would be general agreement with the statement "it is immoral to be the cause of someone's death without overriding factors". I believe that many would assign the "responsibility" for the deaths to the ultimate cause ("someone sent a trolley down these tracks", or just "a trolley is hurtling down these tracks"), and also, separately, that many would consider lives saved an "overriding factor". At some point it becomes a manner of haggling - how many lives need to be saved to override the immorality of being the proximate cause of someone's death. For some worldviews, that immorality is close to zero. For yours, it is clearly very high.
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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby Cradarc » Tue Apr 14, 2015 12:33 am UTC

DaBigCheez,
Yes, that sounds about right. The key thing is that when flipping the lever, I cause the death of the person who otherwise had no reason to die. I can see how some would just view it as collateral damage because the "real" reason for the choice is to save the other people. However, because you are given the knowledge that performing the action will guarantee someone else will die, the two are very much intertwined.

In some sense, it's like I'm forcing that person to sacrifice him/herself to save the other people. Even if I didn't think suicide is wrong, the fact that I am making the decision for them is extremely wrong.
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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby slinches » Tue Apr 14, 2015 1:01 am UTC

I think gmalivuk pointed out the key difference in interpretation here:
gmalivuk wrote:
slinches wrote:Okay, elasto, in the situation that through no action of your own you are thrust into the exclusive position to choose between two immoral acts with no other available options, I would choose least immoral option. As I would hope everyone would. In that scenario, the default position of the lever isn't even a factor because the problem assumes you are responsible for the outcome no matter which decision you make.

Yes, by assuming you're the only one able to pull the lever, that is what the traditional trolley problem implies.

In their interpretation of the trolley problem, you are by definition already part of the cause chain leading to someone's death and there is therefore no option to abstain (choosing not to choose is the same as switching the lever to the default position intentionally).

Although, I think this interpretation (while certainly applicable to the problem as it is stated) is rather tenuous considering that it relies on no one but you having any autonomy in the situation as well as accurate foreknowledge of potential outcomes.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby ucim » Tue Apr 14, 2015 1:50 am UTC

slinches wrote:In their interpretation of the trolley problem, you are by definition already part of the cause chain leading to someone's death and there is therefore no option to abstain (choosing not to choose is the same as switching the lever to the default position intentionally).
Yet another version - you are at the switch, the train is coming towards you, the two tracks extend behind you.

The switch is in the neutral position - if left that way the train will run through the middle of the switch, off the tracks, crash in a fireball killing you and everyone else in the area including those on the tracks. You could do nothing (ensuring this "natural" result), or you can pull the switch towards A or B. Choosing A or B will save you, everyone on both tracks, and prevent the disaster. But it will kill those on the chosen track.

On track A is {fill in}
On track B is {fill in}

1: Do you do nothing?
YES --> RIP. Game over.
NO ---> You've chosen x, which is one of A or B. (The unchosen track will be labeled y.)

Having made the choice, you reach out to pull the lever to x, but the train is already rumbling pretty close to you and the ground is shaking. Before you can reach it, the lever falls to y. There's still time though.

2: Do you pull it back to x, or let it be?

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby Cradarc » Tue Apr 14, 2015 2:10 am UTC

Response to Jose's scenario
Spoiler:
Choosing A or B will save you, everyone on both tracks, and prevent the disaster.

^Did you mean to say "save everyone on both tracks"? Because that would indeed prevent the disaster and make the choice very easy. I don't think the situation stops being a disaster when fewer people die.
As people would guess, I would do nothing. By pulling the lever I am making the judgement that one side deserves to live more than the other side. If I do nothing, whatever/whoever caused the situation is deciding none of us deserves to live, much like a meteorite hitting earth.


Here's another variation that I don't think has been brought up yet:

You are taken prisoner by a psychopathic terrorist. You know the terrorist has other prisoners but you don't know how many. You are told to press a button that will trigger a bomb killing 25 people. If you don't comply, the terrorist will bring out a prisoner and shoot him/her in front of you. Let's say you press the button after N people have been shot. The terrorist then reveals he had only 1 prisoner left to kill.
A total of N+25 people are dead. What is N and how many people did you "cause" to die?

(For obvious reasons, assume you cannot change the situation and the only thing you have control over is the button.)
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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby morriswalters » Tue Apr 14, 2015 3:33 am UTC

You're trying to compare apples and oranges. The trolly problem is about perfect information. That particular conglomeration doesn't fill the bill, it doesn't even come close. All the variations always have actions that lead to known outcomes. Except the statistical ones thrown about here.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby ucim » Tue Apr 14, 2015 3:50 am UTC

Cradarc wrote:^Did you mean to say "save everyone on both tracks"? Because that would indeed prevent the disaster and make the choice very easy. I don't think the situation stops being a disaster when fewer people die.
Oops; mustarded that one up. Fixed the original.

If you do nothing, everybody dies in a fireball of toxic chemicals that destroys the town.
If you choose a track, the train proceeds safely, but kills those on the track.

The question is meant to address the action/inaction thing. Given that you chose x, the switch then falls to y before you reach it. Do you simply accept that, or implement your prior decision?

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby slinches » Tue Apr 14, 2015 5:15 am UTC

I don't get what the switch falling over to the opposite choice has to do with anything. You've already accepted the responsibility to decide who lives and dies, so switching the lever back is the only logical choice unless your decision was entirely arbitrary and in that case it doesn't matter.

I think a better way to address the problem of action vs inaction is to confront it directly. The setup is the normal trolley problem except that there's a third option to choose to abstain and a random person will take your place. What do you choose? (eventually, if everyone abstains, the trolley will pass the switch and the five die)

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby ucim » Tue Apr 14, 2015 4:55 pm UTC

slinches wrote:I don't get what the switch falling over to the opposite choice has to do with anything.
It reduces it to the original trolly problem (after the switch falls, you can do nothing, or you can pull the lever). In the original, some claimed that by doing nothing they remain blameless, by doing something they take the blame for the resulting deaths. Comparing the two scenarios focuses on that aspect.

An application of the idea is that if you do something that causes death, you can be sued for wrongful death. But if you do something that costs you, and avoids death, you have no standing to sue to recover your costs. In some cases, "your costs" are the lives of your loved ones. The people you saved are not obligated to you, but the people you killed on the way have a claim on you. Tough cookies.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby slinches » Tue Apr 14, 2015 7:34 pm UTC

I think the argument was that by doing nothing in the original trolley problem that you are just abstaining from taking/saving lives and allowing the scenario play out however it may (maybe someone else steps in and pulls the lever or the trolley driver is able to switch tracks). This falls apart when it's specifically stated that there's no other autonomous agents and there is highly accurate foreknowledge of all of the potential outcomes. In your variant, moral abstention is inapplicable since both of those conditions are true.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby ucim » Tue Apr 14, 2015 7:53 pm UTC

slinches wrote: In your variant, moral abstention is inapplicable since both of those conditions are true.
Yes, and it does so without the artificial constructs, thus making it easier to imagine oneself in the actual situation.

People do things based on the situation they are in, not on theoretical discussions, so the closer one can get to a real situation, the more reliable the answer would be.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby cphite » Tue Apr 14, 2015 8:00 pm UTC

slinches wrote:I think the argument was that by doing nothing in the original trolley problem that you are just abstaining from taking/saving lives and allowing the scenario play out however it may (maybe someone else steps in and pulls the lever or the trolley driver is able to switch tracks). This falls apart when it's specifically stated that there's no other autonomous agents and there is highly accurate foreknowledge of all of the potential outcomes. In your variant, moral abstention is inapplicable since both of those conditions are true.


But it doesn't really fall apart.

Looking at the most basic example - you either pull the lever and kill one person, or don't pull the lever and five people die. If you pull the lever, you killed someone. You. Regardless of any other facts - including that this whole scenario was setup by some evil maniac - you just ended a life. If you don't pull the lever, the maniac killed them. Not you. Yes, people (including yourself) can argue that by your inaction those people died... but you can at least say that you didn't actually do anything. You were just someone who was put into an awful situation.

And for some people, that is a really big thing. That's why this dilemma works. Because while some people can rationalize that by pulling that lever they're actually saving four people - some other people simply can't do that. For a lot of people, the act of pulling the lever makes them a killer, whereas not pulling the lever merely makes them a witness.

Human behavior isn't something that you can reduce to simple logic. Pulling the lever is the logical thing to do. From an outsiders perspective it's the moral thing to do; it ends the least number of lives. But that doesn't mean that a person - especially some random person thrust into such a scenario - will be able to bring themselves to do it. And quite frankly, it should be an awful decision. Anyone who find themselves in that position and finds the decision easy, is more than a little messed up themselves.

We see this kind of choice in books and movies all the time. Do you shoot the intruder who's threatening your family? Do you brain your best friend after he was bitten by the zombie? The reason we see this so often is because it works as an emotional story element. And the reason is works is because human beings - at least, normal well-adjusted ones - tend to have a hard time taking lives even when it makes logical or even moral sense.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby slinches » Tue Apr 14, 2015 8:56 pm UTC

ucim wrote:
slinches wrote:In your variant, moral abstention is inapplicable since both of those conditions are true.

Yes, and it does so without the artificial constructs, thus making it easier to imagine oneself in the actual situation.

People do things based on the situation they are in, not on theoretical discussions, so the closer one can get to a real situation, the more reliable the answer would be.

It is somewhat more realistic in the sense that there's now a compelling reason to make a choice to throw the switch, but it's still in a universe where only you can influence the outcome and you can be certain of the consequences of your choices. Each of those are rarely true in reality on their own, let alone in combination. That's where I think the problem becomes divorced from reality to the point that any answer is irrelevant outside of philosophical discussions.


cphite wrote:But it doesn't really fall apart.

Looking at the most basic example - you either pull the lever and kill one person, or don't pull the lever and five people die. If you pull the lever, you killed someone. You. Regardless of any other facts - including that this whole scenario was setup by some evil maniac - you just ended a life. If you don't pull the lever, the maniac killed them. Not you. Yes, people (including yourself) can argue that by your inaction those people died... but you can at least say that you didn't actually do anything. You were just someone who was put into an awful situation.

I agree. But with the caveat that in a real world situation where other people may be actively making their own decisions and your choices may affect the results in unanticipated ways, the "correct" trolley problem answer may not end up with the best outcome, which is what makes choosing not to act justifiable.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby ucim » Tue Apr 14, 2015 9:29 pm UTC

slinches wrote:It is somewhat more realistic in the sense that there's now a compelling reason to make a choice to throw the switch, but it's still in a universe where only you can influence the outcome and you can be certain of the consequences of your choices.
The first part is not uncommon, and the second part is not necessary. In reality, we make these choices on a split-second basis. Cops for example do it all the time. But in the courtroom, we take time to consider the options, and then put people in jail for picking the wrong ones. The publicity surrounding those cases influences the next split-second decisions we make. So, it's worth a think.

Lawmakers make the same choices slowly when they enact or repeal drug legislation, and citizens do it when they elect lawmakers. The underlying question is the same.

My question doesn't address which choice to make, it addresses the extent to which not making a choice is a choice, and for which kinds of choices this holds. Note that although the outcome is the same, the actual choice being made in my scenario is subtly different, and that difference makes a difference.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby morriswalters » Tue Apr 14, 2015 9:36 pm UTC

These are moral dilemmas, there is no correct choice. The choice is between bad outcomes. Changing the information can and sometimes does change the answer. For instance in making the singleton a child. Or your child. Or a murderer.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby slinches » Tue Apr 14, 2015 10:09 pm UTC

ucim wrote:The first part is not uncommon, and the second part is not necessary

How so? I can't think of any real world life and death situations where only my actions can affect the outcome. Cops make split second decisions, sure, but those are in the context of others making decisions to break the law. And the certainty of the results of your actions is a major factor. If you're not at all certain whether an action will improve the outcome or make matters worse, then there's a valid reason not to act.

morriswalters wrote:These are moral dilemmas, there is no correct choice. The choice is between bad outcomes. Changing the information can and sometimes does change the answer. For instance in making the singleton a child. Or your child. Or a murderer.

That just gauges the balance of the utility function for each individual. It's an interesting avenue for discussing variation in how people value other lives, but it doesn't address the issue of whether it can be moral to choose not to act.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Apr 15, 2015 12:45 am UTC

Are you really so unimaginative that you can't think of a single realistic situation where only one person has a real chance of affecting the outcome?

Can you not even imagine a situation where police or emergency responders have to react to circumstances that weren't caused by someone's choice to break the law?
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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby slinches » Wed Apr 15, 2015 1:08 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Are you really so unimaginative that you can't think of a single realistic situation where only one person has a real chance of affecting the outcome?

I'm not sure whether I have too little imagination or too much, but no. Not unless the person making the decision has already knowingly accepted a position of responsibility to make such decisions (e.g. military leader, police officer, hospital administrator, trolley driver). Even then, if anyone else involved is conscious they will be able to act autonomously at some level.

Can you not even imagine a situation where police or emergency responders have to react to circumstances that weren't caused by someone's choice to break the law?

Yes, I realize emergency responders respond to all kinds of events which don't necessarily involve law breaking. I was just trying to point out that they will be interacting with someone. In the rare case where everyone else is unconscious, it's a matter of triage which already has some fairly well defined guidelines for the most moral approach.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby morriswalters » Wed Apr 15, 2015 2:19 am UTC

slinches wrote:That just gauges the balance of the utility function for each individual. It's an interesting avenue for discussing variation in how people value other lives, but it doesn't address the issue of whether it can be moral to choose not to act.
The problem wasn't meant to do that. It was about why you decide. Define what moral means in that context.
slinches wrote:I'm not sure whether I have too little imagination or too much, but no. Not unless the person making the decision has already knowingly accepted a position of responsibility to make such decisions (e.g. military leader, police officer, hospital administrator, trolley driver).
One of the original versions has you at a switch overlooking the tracks. There is no Trolly driver. Just you and the people on the tracks.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby Forest Goose » Wed Apr 15, 2015 3:25 am UTC

slinches wrote:I'm not sure whether I have too little imagination or too much, but no. Not unless the person making the decision has already knowingly accepted a position of responsibility to make such decisions (e.g. military leader, police officer, hospital administrator, trolley driver). Even then, if anyone else involved is conscious they will be able to act autonomously at some level.

Yes, I realize emergency responders respond to all kinds of events which don't necessarily involve law breaking. I was just trying to point out that they will be interacting with someone. In the rare case where everyone else is unconscious, it's a matter of triage which already has some fairly well defined guidelines for the most moral approach.


The point of problems like this is to isolate an aspect of morality and question it, see how it functions without confounding variables. Obviously, any question of real world morality isn't going to be helped by directly considering the trolley problem - and it is fairly evident that no real world scenario applies directly to it. It's like objecting to Schrödinger's cat on the grounds that it would be animal abuse (or, better, that one cannot neglect air friction in physics problems since we don't live in a vacuum.)
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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby slinches » Wed Apr 15, 2015 3:56 am UTC

But that is my point exactly. If there's no moral difference between intentionally choosing the track with five and abstaining, then the trolley problem becomes much less interesting. With a difference you have the choice between the moral good of saving five at the cost of killing the other vs. letting more die to prevent sacrificing your moral stance not to kill. Without it's simply a choice to kill those on track A or track B and it's reduced to just a sadistic version of the game "would you rather".

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby Forest Goose » Wed Apr 15, 2015 6:23 am UTC

If there is no difference*, then the point it makes is, "Some form of utilitarianism is some form of prima facie", or something along those lines. If there is a difference, then it would be a semi-demonstration that there is, indeed, a moral passive/active distinction (though, this would be better made through the case of one on each track), but I don't believe that is really the compelling point.

Personally, I don't find the trolley problem to be that philosophically interesting, at least, not in practice - it almost always becomes a debate of "What would I do" or "What about this near-equivalent that isn't that nearly equivalent at all".


*With regards to pulling the lever or not in terms of one being intrinsically different as an action, not as in "the morality of it in this situation".

There would have to be a compelling reason for me consciously to allow my child to die. Something that would make the value of the 5 greater than my love for my child. I admit to the possibility that such a thing exists, but I haven't seen it to this point. Relate how it wouldn't be moral in the trolly problem to make that choice.

Shooting a cop to save my wife is a specious idea, it implies that I am stupid enough to believe that a shootout could fix anything. And most normal people don't think that way. And if you read the post your second suggestion is odd.


My problem is that you're answer is based upon some vague notion of, "I love my child" or "Protecting my child", etc. That's all fine and good for normal conversation, but it isn't a philosophically interesting response, there is no clarification on to what extent those notions reach - who cares how normal people think, if the principle is "Protect my loved ones", then where does it break down, and why? How do you limit those things out? You appear to be making a psychological point, "What you would consider reasonable and how you would act", that's all very interesting, but there's no clear philosophically relevant content to what you said as you said it. (It doesn't become moral because it is psychologically compelling - or, at least, it doesn't appear to on its face be morally justified. Would you let a million people die to save your child? If so, it's certainly not obvious that that is moral, so why should it be clear with five. If not, then at what point does it shift? Etc. Etc.).
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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby morriswalters » Wed Apr 15, 2015 9:48 am UTC

Forest Goose wrote:Would you let a million people die to save your child? If so, it's certainly not obvious that that is moral, so why should it be clear with five. If not, then at what point does it shift? Etc. Etc.).
The general question you seem to be asking is what is the value of any given life? Why should 1 be worth more than 5? In an abstract sense there isn't any reason. The only difference that can exist is in what I know and what that knowledge means to me. One general rule is that children(young children) have greater moral weight to me, in general, than adults. Until the point where they can act for themselves I am obligated in fact to preserve them if I can. Can you state a moral rule that tells me how I can make the choice? One that is never inconsistent.

As to when do the numbers make a difference. If I can't answer for 5, does a million make the question any more meaningful? How you ask the question in your specific case is important. You ask how my choice can be moral. How can my choice not be moral if I value life at all? In my opinion the question instead is, given two choices that will put me in conflict between two competing imperatives how do I resolve it?

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby Tyndmyr » Wed Apr 15, 2015 8:57 pm UTC

slinches wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:Are you really so unimaginative that you can't think of a single realistic situation where only one person has a real chance of affecting the outcome?

I'm not sure whether I have too little imagination or too much, but no. Not unless the person making the decision has already knowingly accepted a position of responsibility to make such decisions (e.g. military leader, police officer, hospital administrator, trolley driver). Even then, if anyone else involved is conscious they will be able to act autonomously at some level.


I'm not sure that accepting a job as a trolley driver is normally thought of as choosing to decide who lives and who dies.

Trying to avoid killing people in general, sure. But not the sort of decisions we're talking about here.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby slinches » Wed Apr 15, 2015 9:16 pm UTC

Including the trolley driver was just a bit of a joke. Ironically, the others are much more likely to come across a situation analogous to the Trolley Problem.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby Tyndmyr » Wed Apr 15, 2015 10:31 pm UTC

slinches wrote:Including the trolley driver was just a bit of a joke. Ironically, the others are much more likely to come across a situation analogous to the Trolley Problem.


Granted. But I doubt that anyone is taking the job in order to perform that duty in particular. Even say, a policeman. An idealistic person may enlist as a policeman to stop crime and keep everyone safe. Less idealistic people probably take it because the pay is good, and they like donuts, but I digress. I think that while trolley problems do occur, they do not occur frequently enough for people to have specifically volunteered to handle them. So, acceptance of responsibility in advance cannot really be assumed to be universal, or even very likely.

But would it matter if it were? Is it more moral to have life and death decisions made only by those who, in advance, specify that they want to make those decisions? Why?

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby slinches » Wed Apr 15, 2015 11:00 pm UTC

The reason it matters is that if someone knowingly accepts responsibility for making life and death decisions (such as by being in a position of authority within the context of the situation), then choosing to abstain would be a dereliction of their duty.

Also, I don't buy the premise that a police officer wouldn't realize that they will have to make these sorts of decisions as part of the job. I, as an engineer, know that it's my responsibility to ensure that the parts I design will function properly or other people's lives may be put at risk. Other professions have their own ethical concerns which are part of the package and a basic understanding of those concerns should be a prerequisite for being hired.

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Re: Trolley Problem

Postby Forest Goose » Thu Apr 16, 2015 7:43 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:The general question you seem to be asking is what is the value of any given life? Why should 1 be worth more than 5? In an abstract sense there isn't any reason.


"In an abstract sense, there isn't any reason that living 1 second is any better than living a full life" is just as legitimate a sentence, so death is never tragic because of a life cut short, I suppose.

The only difference that can exist is in what I know and what that knowledge means to me. One general rule is that children(young children) have greater moral weight to me, in general, than adults.


This is exactly what I was objecting to. Statements that are justified by, "to me", usually appear to be being implicitly justified on some alternative moral principle that makes what is important to you reasonable, but not what is important to Crazy Bob The Serial Killer, or seem more to be a matter of psychology and a repackaging of "This seems good to me, therefore it is". Like I said, what you're saying is all well and good in common conversation with its background assumptions of "sane reasonable people like us", but once you expect the principles to stand on their own, they don't - at least, not without a lot of theory backing them up, none of which is obvious or you can just take for granted.

Again, I want to be very clear: if you really mean that "you" have some bearing in this, as in a generic you, then whatever nonsense someone thinks starts becoming harder to object to - unless there is some reason that you, the specific you, is in a position that that is reasonable; in which case all of this subject rooting doesn't really make any sense since something else justifies it.

Can you state a moral rule that tells me how I can make the choice? One that is never inconsistent.


I'm not sure what it is you're asking me for:

1.) A moral principle for the trolley problem?
2.) A general one for trolley-ish problems? (I'm not sure this makes sense since most variants are not morally analogous).
3.) I'm not sure what you mean by inconsistent? In short, there is no obvious reason why moral principles are likely to be inconsistent, anymore than any other set of principles.

As to when do the numbers make a difference. If I can't answer for 5, does a million make the question any more meaningful? How you ask the question in your specific case is important.


You said that you would chose your child over 5 people and that that would be moral (you don't say "not immoral", but, specifically, it would be the "moral" thing, that's a lot stronger). I asked if it would be so if it were a 1,000,000 people, if you have the answer for 5, why not for the larger? I'm not sure why you are in a position to assert that the moral choice is your child for 5, but are unwilling to make an assertion for the larger (or even explain why that might be different).

You ask how my choice can be moral. How can my choice not be moral if I value life at all?


Why would it be moral? There is a world of difference between moral and not immoral, you chose to assert the far stronger of the two. I'm not sure how you valuing life makes it moral - if you value money, does it follow that your stock investments will be profitable? If you value fine art, does it follow that your painting should be lauded and hung in a gallery? If you value rationality, does it follow that your rebuttal refutes the position at hand? What you value does not justify your assertions pertaining it just because the subject matter is axiological.

Also, some sort of unless-overridden duty to protect your child doesn't really work here unless you are arguing that saving one life from saving five is morally indistinguishable - are you? That's possible, but unless you are agreeing that that is fairly universal for value, or just normal for value, the burden of proof falls on you to establish it (since it would follow that you would be discussing a special case). If you are willing to assert that value, in general, is a binary "has at least one" -vs- "has none", then that's fairly consistent, but it seems intuitively difficult.

In my opinion the question instead is, given two choices that will put me in conflict between two competing imperatives how do I resolve it?


The specific question was "If you would be moral to chose your child over 5, on grounds of your child's importance to you, then would you be to choose your child over 1,000,000?" and "Why is "Important to you" acceptable, but "Important to Joe Evildoer" is not if it is not due to some moral principle you are not stating?" - as for the latter, "Normal people don't think that way" seems exactly like, "Because they aren't asserting the moral thing to do" (except yours brings in the scarier term, "Normal", I'm not sure who decides who is "normal" enough to be moral on grounds of normality alone).

If you mean the question of this thread, then sure, that's one way of looking at it, but I'm not seeing any reason that is the ultimate way of looking at it - at least, not if you mean equally strong imperatives, or in some such sense as to imply that the principles do not hold their own resolution to the situation.
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