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In the October edition of Prospect magazine, Practical ethics blogger David Edmonds provides an accessible and thoughtful insight into "Trolley problems"

A shocking memo leaked to Prospect, drafted by civil servants from the treasury and the department of health, exposes the stark reality of future cutbacks. Harsh decisions are inevitable, says the memo; in one NHS trust people on life-support systems are to be “finished off” on 1st November—either by smothering, or by having the plugs pulled out. Their organs are then to be used to save the lives of others on transplant-waiting lists, who have themselves become a considerable burden to the taxpayer. The total saving to the trust is estimated at £2.3m a year.

Hogwash, of course. But the government will make some tough choices in its spending review on 20th October, and these will cost lives. Whether “efficiencies” are made in the department of transport, the military or the NHS, there will be victims, even if they are unidentifiable. Governments always have to prioritise—choosing, for example, between a cheap medicine which benefits few people a little, and an expensive one which benefits many people a lot. But in hard financial times, such predicaments become more acute.

Moral philosophers have long debated under what circumstances it is acceptable to kill and why, for example, we object to killing a patient for their organs, but not to a distribution of resources that funds some drugs rather than others. To understand the debate you need to understand the trolley problem. It was conceived decades ago by two grande dames of philosophy: Philippa Foot of Oxford University (click here to read more about Foot) and Judith Jarvis Thomson of MIT.

David sums up both the nature of the burgeoning philosophical field of analysis of the trolley problem and its variants, but also the bigger questions about the role of such thought experiments in moral philosophy

The most vehement of trolley-phobes believe this whole approach to ethics is profoundly wrong-headed and, in a most fundamental way, mischaracterises the nature of morality. The world is too complex, judgements are too multifaceted, and the qualities of virtue and wisdom too subtle, for us to peel off intuitions from the trolley scenarios and usefully transplant them onto the real world. The riposte is that it’s hard to know how to do applied moral philosophy any other way. If it is indeed right to kill the spur man but wrong to kill the fat man, we need to untangle the principles at stake.  Judith Jarvis Thomson once referred to the trolley problem as a “lovely, nasty difficulty.” Solving this lovely, nasty problem has repercussions for how we regard actions that weigh up lives.

Is the trolley problem a useful tool for moral philosophy?

If our intuitions lead us to not push the fat man, but to divert the trolley – does that mean that we should embrace the doctrine of double effect (or some variant of it), or does it mean that we should reject our instinctual responses to these questions?

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2 Comment on this post

  1. This is not about the trolley problem and its variations, but the way intuition is valued as a tool of ethics in the discussion of the problems.

    The more moral philosophers refer to intuition, and the more we think about the responses of ordinary people to the trolley problems, it becomes more and more clear that ethics/morals is not universal but (as B. Williams pointed out with respect to ethics in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy), that ethics (morals) is a cultural artifact and cannot be thought about on the basis of universal principles that are not made universal by imposing our own cultural norms on all people.

    Where does intuition come from other than the thoughts that are guided by our culture and that react to cultural norms. Of course, there is disagreement. In part this is because what we accept as a result of growing up and learning in a particular culture is too general to be useful in particular circumstances. Moreover, there are variations within a culture because of particular characteristics of different communities But, these things develop as people think and write about how to act and how to live, in fiction, essays and even the results of litigation and arbitration. But, however things are worked out in terms of deciding what to do, they are worked out in the context of a particular culture in a particular social context.

    Now, I am not entirely adverse to imposing our culture on others — pretending that our ethics are universal. Inter-cultural affairs are political, not ethical, after all.

  2. Is the trolley problem a useful tool for moral philosophy?

    The answer depends perhaps on what one is seeking to do, to which I list three possible answers :

    1. A form of mental calisthenics : clearly much intellectual ingenuity has been exercised in devising new variants to hone new possible points of view. But I would suggest that this in itself has little to do with ethics, unless one believes that the essence of being a better craftsman consists in having sharper tools.
    Of course, sharper tools help. But they are only the means to an end, and the end has to de defined otherwise : to confuse the two would seem to be a category mistake.

    2. A descriptive tool, which could be used to demonstrate whether different points of view are clustered by cultural differences – whether education, social class, income, race, profession….
    In other words a form of sociological analysis of ethics. This may be interesting, or not, but does it constitute moral philosophy ?

    3. A device (as David Edmonds suggest) to tease out the underlying principles of our moral judgements. The unspoken analogy appears to be with algebra or formal logic. Trolleyologists construct artificial cases and seek to tease out hidden premises by suggesting that without adding these premises we would be led into tautology or contradiction in our different judgements.
    A variant of the above would be to use the problems as a form of coherence test to our moral judgements : the problems provoke us to say “you believe X in case A, why do you not do so in case B? ”
    The difficulty here is that either we pick very abstract, simple cases, in which case we reduce the actors to cyphers, with no human characteristics. Fine, if you think that moral philosophy has nothing to do with the human condition, but a bit frustrating if you don’t.
    Or else we have to devise complex cases, which undermine the concept of having a simple tool. (See the delicious parody posted by William Grey on 20th October here ;

    Perhaps, finally, one’s reaction to trolleyology comes down to one fundamental question : can, or should, moral discourse be subject to the same rules as formal logic ?

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