The Trolley Problem

NYTBR reviews not one but two books about the ‘trolley problem’, a hypothetical situation in which the decisions people make reveal how intuitive moral decisions are made differently by different people. The question is, suppose you see a runaway trolley car about to hit five people. But you could throw a switch to move the trolley to another track, where it would hit only one person. Would you throw the switch?

An equivalent but more disturbing situation: You are on a bridge and see the trolley bearing down on five people. There is a fat man next to you, and if you push him over the bridge, his bulk would stop the trolley, though at the cost of his life. Would you push him off?

The two books explore results of psychological studies on these questions, as well as the philosophical principles they reveal. The reasons for different decisions by different people boil down to issues of psychology, though the review doesn’t quite state it in those terms. But it’s consistent with my other recent reading (e.g. McRaney).

“The contingent nature of our ethical responses in general emerges from other research. We are more generous toward a stranger if we have just found a dime; a judge’s decision to grant parole depends on how long it has been since he or she had lunch. Are these the “deep-rooted moral instincts” on which we are willing to found decisions that may affect tens or hundreds of thousands of fellow humans?”

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