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Phillipa Foot and the Trolley Problem

Posted by Samuel Arbesman  October 13, 2010 07:51 AM

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Philippa Foot, the renowned moral philosopher, died recently at the age of 90. And one of the reasons she was so important was her introduction of something called the Trolley Problem to thinking about ethics. These problems revolutionized moral philosophy (something profoundly rare), and are described here:

Suppose you are down a mine and five people are standing on the track. You see a trolley laden with coal coming down the track, you cannot warn the people, but you can flip a switch that will divert the trolley onto a side line. Unfortunately one person is standing on this line. What should you do (morally, that is).

Basically, this problem is supposed to sort out the differences between utilitarians and Kantians, the former thinking you should maximize happiness and the latter thinking you should treat people as ends and not as means. From a utilitarian viewpoint, flip the switch. Five lives for one. From a Kantian viewpoint, don’t flip the switch. You would be treating that single person as a means for the benefits of the five.

Now add a second part to the problem. Suppose, instead of a switch, you are standing next to a fat man. You could push him onto the track, and although he would be squashed, the trolley would stop and the five would be saved. Would you, should you, do so? (Your victim has to be a fatty. If a normal person would do, then morally one might well argue that the right thing to do is to jump yourself. The point has to be that your jumping would not do the trick, but pushing him would.)

What is interesting is that folk who are quite prepared to flip the switch are often much less prepared to push the man. Why should this be so? At this point, philosophers often get into convoluted arguments about how there is a difference between merely saving people (you are just flipping the switch to save the five and the unfortunate consequences for the one are not your fault) and hurting people even though there are good ends for others (you are deliberately pushing).

The important thing about this question is that it reveals certain aspects about how we think about morality that we didn't know we had. And neuroscientists/psychologists, such as Joshua Greene, are thinking very deeply about this. Here's Greene discussing these issues on Radiolab.

Thank you, Professor Foot. Your insights have helped us think about ourselves.

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