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The trolley problem problem

19 1 0

Much recent work in analytic philosophy pins its hopes on learning from imaginary cases. Starting from seminal contributions by philosophers such as Robert Nozick and Derek Parfit, this work champions the use of thought experiments – short hypothetical scenarios designed to probe or persuade on a point of ethical principle. Such scenarios are nearly always presented context-free, and are often wildly different from the everyday contexts in which ethical sensibilities are formed and exercised. Most famous (or infamous) among these are ‘trolley problems’ – thought experiments about the permissibility of causing the death of a smaller number of people to save a larger number from a runaway trolley (or train). But there are thousands more, with some papers containing as many as 10 separate cases.

While thought experiments are as old as philosophy itself, the weight placed on them in recent philosophy is distinctive. Even when scenarios are highly unrealistic, judgments about them are thought to have wide-ranging implications for what should be done in the real world. The assumption is that, if you can show that a point of ethical principle holds in one artfully designed case, however bizarre, then this tells us something significant. Many non-philosophers baulk at this suggestion. Consider ‘The Violinist’, a much-discussed case from Judith Jarvis Thomson’s 1971 defence of abortion:

Readers are supposed to judge that the violinist, despite having as much right to life as anyone else, doesn’t thereby have the right to use the body and organs of someone who hasn’t consented to this – even if this is the only way for him to remain alive. This is supposed to imply that, even if it is admitted that the foetus has a right to life, it doesn’t yet follow that it has a right to the means to survive where that involves the use of an unconsenting other’s body.

From the perspective of philosophers, the point here is clear, even if Thomson’s conclusion is controversial. In the few instances I tried to use this thought experiment in teaching ethics to clinicians, they mostly found it a bad and confusing example. Their problem is that they know too much. For them, the example is physiologically and institutionally implausible, and problematically vague in relevant details of what happened and how. (Why does the Society of Music Lovers have access to confidential medical records? Is the operation supposed to have taken place in hospital, or do they have their own private operating facility?) Moreover, clinicians find this thought experiment bizarre in its complete lack of attention to other plausible real-world alternatives, such as dialysis or transplant. As a result, excellent clinicians might fail to even see the analogy with pregnancy, let alone find it helpful in their ethical reasoning about abortion.

Faced with people who don’t ‘get’ a thought experiment, the temptation for philosophers is to say that these people aren’t sufficiently good at isolating what is ethically relevant. Obviously, such a response risks being self-serving, and tends to gloss over an important question: how should we determine what are the ethically relevant features of a situation? Why, for example, should a philosopher sitting in an armchair be in a better position to determine the ethically relevant features of ‘The Violinist’ than someone who’s worked with thousands of patients?

Although philosophers don’t often talk about this, it would appear that they assume that the interpretation of thought experiments should be subject to a convention of authoritative authorial ethical framing. In other words, the experiments are about what the author intends them to be and nothing else, much like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, who used words to mean whatever he wanted them to mean. To further spell out the implied convention, the author of the thought experiment has, by definition, specified all the ethically relevant elements of the case.

Thought-experiment designers often attempt to finesse the problem through an omniscient authorial voice that, at a glance, takes in and relates events in their essentials. The voice is able to say clearly and concisely what each of the thought experiment’s actors is able to do, their psychological states and intentions. The authorial voice will often stipulate that choices must be made from a short predefined menu, with no ability to alter the terms of the problem. For example, the reader might be presented with only two choices, as in the classic trolley problem: pull a lever, or don’t pull it.

All this makes reasoning about thought experiments strikingly unlike good ethical reasoning about real-life cases. In real life, the skill and creativity in ethical thinking about complex cases are in finding the right way of framing the problem. Imaginative ethical thinkers look beyond the small menu of obvious options to uncover novel approaches that better allow competing values to be reconciled. The more contextual knowledge and experience a thinker has, the more they have to draw on in coming to a wise........

© Aeon