Saturday, October 07, 2006

The trolley problem

I am frustrated by most of the "thought experiments" we're reading about in my Christian ethics class. They're supposed to reduce complex problems to simpler terms so they become easier to understand, but as far as I'm concerned, most of them don't accurately represent those complex realities. I'm fascinated, though, by the trolley problem, which I mentioned in yesterday's blog.

Originally devised by Phillipa Foot in an article addressing abortion and the principle of double effect (the distinction between intended consequences of our actions and foreseen but unintended consequences), the trolley problem has spawned a slew of trolley sub-problems and taken on a life of its own. I've started some interesting conversations by trying a few of them out on friends.

The basic trolley problem goes like this:

A runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward five innocent people, who will surely be killed unless something is done. You can't stop the train, but you can flip a switch that will divert the trolley onto another track, where only one innocent person will be killed. What do you do?

In a variation on the basic problem, you are standing on a footbridge above the track, in between the trolley and the five anticipated victims. A large man is standing beside you, and you know enough about this particular kind of trolley to realize that if you push the man off the platform in front of the train, his body will stop it. He undoubtedly will be killed, but the other five will be spared. (You may not try to stop the trolley by jumping in front of it yourself.) What do you do?

If you said you'd flip the switch but couldn't bring yourself to push the man standing next to you, you're with the majority in each case. Which is interesting, because the result of each of those choices would appear to be precisely the same: Sacrificing one innocent person in order to save the lives of five. For most of us, though, the idea of physically pushing a person into the path of a train carries a repulsion factor far beyond that attached to simply flipping a switch and letting it roll over someone. (Although it turns out that subjects with brain damage in the area controlling emotional reactions are significantly more likely to say they'd go ahead and push.)

I heard an interesting lecture last week by a guy who has used brain imaging to see what parts of the human brain light up when we think about things like this this. He went on from there to devise a collection of further trolley problems and tested them out on large survey groups to test his hypotheses about brain function with respect to moral reasoning (an approach known as neuroethics).

So all the times I thought I was praying to God and receiving divine guidance about the right thing to do in difficult situations, it turns out it was actually just my old monkey brain at work, according to his theories. It's fascinating stuff to ponder--not that I'm about to switch from prayer to bananas in facing my personal dilemmas.

Just don't get me started about unconscious famous violinists.

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