The Trolley Problem was more or less invented by Philippa Foot, a British philosopher who died last month, and whose illustrious career at Oxford was overshadowed in her memorials by this funny little brainteaser that is not complicated, but very deep.
A powerful authority in the postwar upheaval in moral philosophy, Foot distilled her thinking about the principle of double effect (that is, a single action can have simultaneous good and bad outcomes) to the problem of the “trolley,” in which a runaway train is heading for five people working on the track, and you can save them by diverting the train onto a spur where a single man is working, killing him but saving the five.
Should you divert it? Most people say yes, because you do not intend to kill the man. He is just collateral damage to the greater good of saving the five, and his death is morally neutral.
DG came upon this intriguing reference while drinking his Sunday morning coffee, snow and ice everywhere. DG read philosophy at Edinburgh early in the last half of the last century and Philippa Foot was then a name in the air. He read her book on ethics. DG did his dissertation on Kant’s ethics, trying to figure out how Kant thought the ethical impulse arose in people (now, of course, dg doesn’t think it arises anywhere except maybe in his dog). There was an interesting Moral Sense school in Britain at one time, a cross between philosophy and psychology (or what Kant called philosophical anthropology). The idea of a moral sense now seems to have found its way into the school of evolutionary psychology which seeks to reduce human behaviour to genes in one way or another which, as dg sees it, is just another dubious way of reducing us to the animal and eliminating the human spirit (whatever that is, says dg’s dog). Still the Trolley Problem is intriguing as a mind experiment and certainly a better way to waste your time than those insidious mind games you all insist we keep on the blogroll.
You can take Marc Hauser’s MST (Moral Sense Test) here. Hauser was a Harvard evolutionary psychologist.
Of course, Marc Hauser’s research into the moral sense failed to discover the existence of such in himself—he has been sent away from Harvard for a series of research improprieties. This makes the whole thing very intriging.