Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Trolley Problem

The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics. It looks to explore the concept of human morality and a philosophical view of consequentialism. It was first introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967, but also extensively analysed by Judith Jarvis Thomson,Peter Unger,and Frances Kamm.
Person A can take an action which would benefit many people, but in doing so, person B would be unfairly harmed. Under what circumstances would it be morally just for Person A to violate Person B's rights in order to benefit the group?

Original problem involved an out of control trolley car which is going to cause the death of five people on the track but this can be averted by switching the trolley to another track in which case it will only kill one person. Is it morally permissible or indeed is there a moral obligation to take an action which will kill one person but will save five? Or do nothing and let five die?
Different formulations are:
- A judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community, perhaps kill five people. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed.
- A pilot whose aeroplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area.

Related Variations
The Fat Man on the Bridge
This variation does not allow the trolley to be switched to another track but instead the trolley can be stopped by pushing a fat man off a bridge into the path of the trolley. Is there any difference between this action and the switching of the track?

The Fat Villain on the Bridge
A variation on the fat man scenario involves the man on the bridge being the individual who is responsible for sabotaging the trolley which is going to lead to the deaths of the five people. Does this change the morality of pushing him off the bridge to prevent the accident?
Transplant Variation
Five people are in hospital each needing a different organ or they will die. A healthy traveler comes to the hospital for a checkup and the doctor discovers his organs are compatible with the five patients who are going to die. This is the only chance those patients will have of getting a transplant. If the traveler disappeared or died nobody would suspect the doctor. What should the doctor do?
Mother Variation
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You can flip a switch and divert the train to run one person over instead of five, but that person is your mother. Would you flip the switch?

Key Themes
- The irrationality of human ethics
- Utilitarianism (the greater good) (also act utilitarianism & rule utilitarianism)
- The incommensurability of human lives
- Moral obligation (e.g. if you are present it is your moral obligation to act and to do nothing would be immoral)
- Ticking time bomb scenario (which demands a choice between two morally questionable acts).

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