Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Where do Ethics come From? The Trolley Problem

So we have discussed Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and Mills and their different take on where ethics come from. Some sadist named Phillipa Foot in the 1950's came up with an ethics test called the "Trolley Problem" which goes something like this.
A trolley is running out of control down a track. in its path are five people who are tied to the track. Happily, it is possible to flip a switch that will send the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there's one person tied to that track who will be killed if you flip the switch. What should you do?

Most people would say you flip the switch. Would you?

An even worse sadist names Judith Thomson proposed an amendment to the Trolley problem. The scenario is the same except this time you're standing on a bridge under which th trolley will pass, and there's a large mand standing next to you. The only way to save the five people is to push him onto the track, thereby stopping the trolley. What would you do?

The transaction is the same. One person dies to save five but there is something different about this scenario. Most people would NOT take the active role of pushing the man to save five others.

Here's my take on the Trolley Problem. A difference between the two is how active the parties are involved in the scenario. The one tied to the track is already involved somehow, the one standing next to you is an outside observer as you are. In other words, we think the one tied to the track is "dead already" and the one next to us is not. Hence are ease at condemning one and not the other.

The reality of the situation is that this is a false situation with a false premise. It is assuming I cannot sacrifice myself to stop the train. It is assuming I cannot jump out and untie one or all of the individuals. It is assuming that there is NO OTHER alternative to the two options laid out. So my simple answer is: "I don't ride the trolley." I don't buy your scenario and your parameters. There are ALWAYS more alternatives, our problem is that we refuse to see them because they require sacrifice, pain or simply inconvenience on our part.

Get active, get involved, make the hard choices NOW so that there never will occur a Trolley Problem in your life. Get off the trolley!

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