Nov 282010

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.

via The National Post

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.


  28 Responses to “The Trolley Problem, Trolleyology, and the Meaning of Wrong”

  1. Ah, The Trolley Problem. My instinctive response is not to throw the switch – who am I to decide who lives and who dies? However, if you make it The Atom Bomb problem, I am pulling the switch. I don’t think that I can tell you at what point my moral sense flips – 100, 1000, 10,000? And what makes it flip? I can supply suggestions for when & why my decision transitions, but they are all stories that I make up to provide a post-hoc explanation of a decision that I’ve already made (somehow).
    The Wiki entry on Marc Hauser is 80% about the misconduct! It’d be interesting to hear him on this topic – does he believe that his ideas are so important and so right that the moral imperative is to get them published and out into the world regardless of whether they are right or wrong? Or is he so ambitious and competitive that …?
    Finally (sorry to go on and on) I want to mention Robert Wright who has some cool things to say about moral evolution. He is the author of The Moral Animal, NonZero and The Evolution of God. There are several videos of him lecturing – check out

  2. Just took the “Moral Sense Test” but received no results. What does this mean? 🙂

    I like the zombie scenario. My first instinct on the train track was to say ‘yes,’ flip the switch. But on second thought, with five people on the tracks, it’s more likely that one of the five would hear or see the runaway train and warn the others. Therefore my involvement might make things worse.

    It’s always hard to think in the aggregate. Are two murders worse than one? If so, are they twice as bad? Is there such a thing as a morally neutral observation point (the man watching on the tracks, with its implication of god?)

    But with zombies, the whole moral reasoning changes.

    • I saw nothing on the website indicating that test-takers would receive any “results” of their own tests. I suspect it would be impossible to give them any evaluation until the research is finished and some sort of scale or protocol has been constructed based on the data that has been collected.

      Are any of you familiar with Kohlberg’s Moral Development scale?

  3. Why do these tests put us in such impossible situations? I’d be curious to hear how most people would respond in situations that are morally clear.

    • Perhaps “impossible situation” is the crux. If it is “morally clear” then there is no dilemma – at least for those who perceive a particular problem as morally clear. Perhaps you have hit on the central issue – difficult moral dilemmas may be less interesting because, well, we don’t know where to go with it. In contrast, we can be keenly interested in understanding why the rest of the world doesn’t see things our way — we can write whole essays (or books) explaining why we see it the way we do.

  4. Actually, I’d like to see an ethical study of people who design such problems and give these tests. I remember one experiment I saw in a film (b/w) in high school biology where they tried to induce mental trauma in a rat. First they trained the rat in a Yerkes (I think) box, where he (she) stood on a platform and had a choice of going through two doors, one with a circle or something, the other with a square. Food would be behind the square, say.

    Once the rat was well trained for the door with the square, the experimenters reversed the cue. They put the food behind the circle door, but the rat kept going for the square, getting frustrated. Then they opened the circle door so the rat could see the food, but he (she) still kept going for the square. Then they left the circle door open and sealed the square door so it wouldn’t open. The rat kept barreling into the square door, hitting it, and falling to the bottom of the cage.

    At some point the rat went ballistic, escaped from the cage, and ran wildly around the lab, which the researchers duly filmed. Then the rat fell into a catatonic state, which the researchers explained and demonstrated — they held the motionless rat and prodded him (her), folded him (her) into a ball, showing us she (he) would not respond.

    It was the behavior of the researchers that engaged my attention all the way through.

    We’re going to get hit by rat queries again, aren’t we?

  5. My problem is I’m an empath. Therefore, I am unable to kill one to save many. I empathize with the ‘one’ (also the many.) But I cannot actively/knowingly kill one in order to save others from an ‘accidental’ fate.
    This goes to the whole intention think I guess.

    For me, the difficult part is what soldiers face in having to address these ‘moral’ choices. Different than a ethics game like the trolley game.

  6. I believe I recognize this rodent; he has appeared on Numero Cinq before. The ethical question I’m concerned about is whether anyone has asked this (rather appealing, I think) individual–let’s call him Jeremy, just for the hell of it–what his position is about being used as a poster boy for philosophical discussions of this kind.

  7. I feel like a rat when I take these tests, or rather feel like I’m being treated like one.

    The moral character of researchers, exhibit 1 (note especially researcher behavior at the end):

  8. I’m not sure what the point of that video is, Gary. Perhaps I’m dense, but would you like to explain it to me?

    • (I get ahead of myself sometimes.) Take the test in Doug’s post. Do everything they tell you to. Repeat the colors aloud, etc. Then answer the questions. I feel like those rats in the video when I take these things. And I question the motives and moral character of the people who give these things. Why do they put us in this position?

      Also, rats just have a way of popping up in this blog.

  9. I see (I think).

  10. Like a rat, my automatic responses were conditioned (I forget the point of saying those colors and kinda don’t care).

    Like a rat, I was placed in an uncomfortable position — painful for empaths!

    Like a rat, I was put in an artificial and constrained environment and given very limited choices for response.

    Assumed here is that my knowledge, character, reflective and other abilities need to be overridden to make the experiment work, this on a very complex and subtle subject–morality. (I’ll have to let rats weigh in on this one themselves.)

    And somehow this is supposed to mean something. My take is that these researchers are closet sadists. I also have a sneaking suspicion this wasn’t an experiment at all but some kind of marketing scam — they asked a lot of questions about me.

    25 plus years in education has made me sensitive to such stuff, which has been horribly influenced by the social “sciences,” even in my field. I once read an article in a college English journal about how researchers hooked up comp students to measuring devices and computers to measure their responses to a variety of writing prompts, this to measure something called cognitive retention capacity (I think).

  11. I tried the test. I get very frustrated with these abstract set ups–I want to ask a bunch of questions before deciding on an answer. They never give enough info! So I cheated and said the wrong color names. Hah!

  12. When you think of it, William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice is composed around a problem of this type. And this exposes the fundamental inhumanity of the problem qua mind experiment.

    • A novel — well, that’s different.

    • I think that there is a fundamental difference here. Sophie’s choice is inhumanely posed and there is nothing interesting about it – I cannot conjure a circle of intellectuals weighing the merits of her various options! The dilemma in the trolley problem is different in an essential way – the fact of the options is neutral. We can come up with various dodges of the dilemma but if faced straight on there is a real dilemma. I think that this is a qualitatively different situation — the novel “Lynne’s Choice” composed around living with the agonies of having not thrown that switch would be wholly different. Maybe.

  13. I was excited to read your post and recognize Philippa Foot’s name! A friend of mine teaches philosophy at a small liberal arts college and has been obsessed with her work, along with that of a couple other British women philosophers. I’ll send him a link to this page so he can comment if he wants.

  14. I tend to agree with Gary. Thought experiments have oh so very little do with actual lived experience that one can wonder what explanatory power they have at all, other than helping explain the pet theories of philosophers.

    As for the rat experiment, well, since researchers are no longer allowed to conduct experiments like the Stanford Prison Experiment, I guess they have to make do with animals. I don’t know if they’re sadists; but I would agree that they appear to experience a lowered sense of empathy.

    • Thought experiments are important. Einstein, for example, relied heavily upon them. But you are correct, they come to nothing unless they yield predictions that can be tested by experimentation in the real world.

      • My real objection is when researchers decide it is more valid to study problems outside of their disciplines, in simplified and reductive fields, instead of within them or within a range of broader fields. In this example and the one I give at the end of my post on comp, psychologists study ethics and writing in terms of psychology, not ethics and writing, oversimplifying both — and worse.

        In my field (such as it is), such studies tend to have much influence, dubious as they are. I know someone who conducted a study of critical thinking that was taken seriously using bonehead multiple choice questions. (If you want to study critical thinking, why not give students tests that exercise their critical thought.) She decided from this test that students who read more tended to be better thinkers.


        • Cf. dg’s remark:

          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).

  15. It’s obviously silly to lump all animal experiments into one giant category, and make generalizations about the people who conduct them. Or, at least, it’s obvious to me. Anyone else?

    • Thanks Vivian. I agree completely and was about to jump in on that very point. Some of my best friends are people who do animal experiments (seriously). I can tell you that for some the motivation (usually related to human health) is deeply empathic and the experiments are designed to yield the maximal information with the lowest levels of suffering for the animals. However, there are certainly animal researchers much lower on the empathy scale. There are grant review panels and ethics boards that review plans for experiments – this helps some. In addition to examining experimental design I (we) also step back and take a long look at the value of the question being asked. As Vivian says, it is a diverse world. For clarity I should add that my experience is limited to the world of health-related research distant from the type of psychology experiments being discussed here.

  16. Here’s Moral Sense Test:

    My creative thesis is due at the end of the week. I could:

    a.) Finish it.

    b.) Ignore it and hope it finishes itself.

  17. Real life morality:

    Bargaining to empty the Guantánamo Bay prison: When American diplomats pressed other countries to resettle detainees, they became reluctant players in a State Department version of “Let’s Make a Deal.” Slovenia was told to take a prisoner if it wanted to meet with President Obama, while the island nation of Kiribati was offered incentives worth millions of dollars to take in Chinese Muslim detainees, cables from diplomats recounted. The Americans, meanwhile, suggested that accepting more prisoners would be “a low-cost way for Belgium to attain prominence in Europe.”

    from NY Times, other examples here:

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