Harvard University, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Michael Sandel, pedagogy, Philippa Foot, Thomas Aquinas, trolley problem, virtue ethics
Suppose a trolley is hurtling down a track, on which are placed five innocent people with no chance to escape in time. You are standing beside a switch that will redirect the trolley onto a track where stands one innocent person, who also has no chance to escape. Should you flip the switch, and thereby kill one to save five?
Now suppose there is no track onto which the trolley can be redirected; the five innocents will be in its path no matter what happens. Instead of being beside a switch, you are standing on a bridge over the tracks, beside a very fat man looking down over the action. You can push the man over the bridge, knowing his enormous girth will stop the trolley’s movement before it hits the innocents. Should you push the man, and thereby kill one to save five?
Michael Sandel begins his famous course on Justice with this action scene, and it’s a great way to start such a course. This trolley problem, ingeniously introduced by Judith Jarvis Thomson and the late Philippa Foot, is a wonderful way to shock beginning students out of their ethical complacency. For nearly all people faced with this problem agree they would kill one to save five in the first situation but not the second. After hearing one case they think there’s an easy principle by which to decide the right action; after hearing the second, they are forced to admit that there isn’t.
Whether they are meek Stonehill students who feel uncomfortable disagreeing and asking hard questions, or cocky Harvard students who think they already know everything, the trolley problem forces undergraduates to think hard about ethics. It makes us realize that ethics cannot be limited to “common sense”: it makes us see that our untrained “intuitions” are not enough on their own, that there is something to be learned from studying ethics and having special training in the subject.
Still, the trolley problem can be overdone – and typically is. Many analytical ethics courses, including the one I took as an undergraduate at McGill, are effectively about nothing but the trolley problem. If one reads the great thinkers in ethics at all, one reads them merely to provide a theoretical justification for each main side of the problem: Kant for why we shouldn’t push the fat man, Mill for why we should flip the switch. There’s no place for Aristotle or Nietzsche in such a course, let alone Mencius or Śāntideva. The goal is only to hammer out some sort of principle that could allow one to be consistent in both cases. (The most common candidate for such a principle is Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of double effect, although instructors in such courses usually skirt around giving credit for this principle to someone whose motive in coming up with it so obviously “religious.”)
Beyond introductory courses, many analytical ethicists spend their careers coming up with fanciful hypothetical cases of the trolley sort – “thought experiments,” they are typically called, ways of isolating principles behind our existing “intuitions.” Often more and more conditions are placed on the hypothetical situation in order to elicit the response one hopes for. For example, since one might avoid pushing the fat man for fear of legal consequences, one might instead speak of Thomson’s alternate “transplant” case:
Suppose you are a solitary doctor in a remote wilderness area, perhaps the Canadian Arctic. You have five patients in front of you who each need a different organ transplant: one needs a new heart, one needs a lung and so on. You have the knowledge and equipment to make the transplants, but you don’t have the donated organs, and there is no way they can be shipped to you in time. But a lone explorer walks into your clinic for comprehensive health tests that require he be sedated. The tests turn up very well: all of his organs are in perfect shape. And a thought occurs to you: you could cut him up and take out all of those organs to give to the other five who need them. Nobody would ever find out. Should you cut him up, and thereby kill one to save five?
But one begins to wonder: what sort of ethical exercise is this, anyway? What sort of situations – what sort of life – is one preparing to deal with? True, in most human lives one will face decisions about sacrificing some people’s interests for the sake of others. If one is a medical doctor or in the military, lives may very well be at stake. The trouble is, in these actual situations, the additional factors in one’s decisions – like the possibility of being caught – will be more rather than less. Hypothetical examples like the trolley problem are designed to bring in the economist’s method of ceteris paribus, “with other things being equal.” But in philosophy as in economics, the ceteris are never actually paribus. If one is to make the right decision in a real case, one can’t merely leave out the “extraneous” factors; everything must be part of the decision. Moreover, in many such cases – the trolley cases certainly suggest this – the decision must be made in a split second. If one is to be prepared to do the right thing when a real hard case comes up, shouldn’t one be thinking through similar real hard cases, rather than fanciful science-fiction scenarios? (The reliance on hypothetical cases may be one more reason why surveys find ethicists aren’t actually more ethical than anyone else.) I’ve suggested before that this sort of point is what underlies the contemporary resurgence of “virtue ethics”: a shifting of our philosophical concern away from rare or hypothetical cases to the difficult task of acting better in everyday life.
Sandel, I think, got this right. Begin ethical reflection with the trolley problem as a wonderful pedagogical device to shock students out of their complacency and get them actually thinking. But after that first introductory moment, get them thinking about real cases in their complexity, and the deep thinkers who are justly revered for their sustained reflection on that complexity.
Good work, Amod.
“The reliance on hypothetical cases may be one more reason why surveys find ethicists aren’t actually more ethical than anyone else.) I’ve suggested before that this sort of point is what underlies the contemporary resurgence of “virtue ethics”: a shifting of our philosophical concern away from rare or hypothetical cases to the difficult task of acting better in everyday life.”
Well, then, are “virtue ethicists” any better than ordinary folks in the matter of virtues? I’m sure the correct answer is in the negative.
I, personally, have the lingering suspicion (comparable to Hume’s suspicion in the face of an avowal and profession of religiosity that the person in question is a rogue! LOL)that these ethicists, whatever the type, may actually fare worse than ordinary folks in matters of ethical sensibility and conduct.
Is this a hazard of professions which depend on the cultivation of dessicated abstraction and remoteness from commonsense, the everyday life, and the realm of moral emotions?
What do you think?
Amod Lele said:
I don’t personally have the sense that they are actually worse than any others; the Schwitzgebel study suggests the possibility briefly, but the survey data generally didn’t indicate that.
“the trolley problem forces undergraduates to think hard about ethics. It makes us realize that ethics cannot be limited to “common sense”: it makes us see that our untrained “intuitions” are not enough on their own, that there is something to be learned from studying ethics and having special training in the subject.”
But why does all that learning fail to increase the probability that they will act ethically or act any better than those folks who are “limited” to “common sense”?
And what is the value of all that intellectual sophistication if it makes no difference to the practice of morality?
What are the real factors which impel, inspire, and enhance moral character and action?
Perhaps, a new approach is needed which will focus on exemplars of virtue and moral greatness, on individuals who have shown moral character and greatness in the face of grave threats and suffering?
Amod Lele said:
I suspect that both are important, as I note in my reply to Thill below as well. The trick with making people better is that you still have to decide what being better actually means. Nussbaum holds up Maggie Verver in Henry James’s The Golden Bowl as an ethical paradigm; but it struck me that Maggie’s central act in the book’s ending [spoiler warning, I guess] is effectively to live a lie – to work to conceal an affair to preserve family harmony. When I read the book, she did not strike me as a paradigm at all.
Pete Schult said:
Nice post. Left-brained consistency is a fine thing, but as Emerson notes, it can also be foolish.
But I also like your take on thought experiments generally. I’ve been thinking about Searle’s “Chinese Room” lately, and it seems to me that his problem is similar to that of creationists: /Slow, rote translation in a mechanical fashion is not at all like fluent translation by a true bilingual, so machines can’t think/ ~ /Chickens lay eggs that hatch chickens, so species are fixed and unchanging/.
Thought experiments are fine starting points, but we don’t accept General Relativity because Einstein had a nice analogy between elevators and gravitational fields. We accept it because it has passed empirical testing.
The other day my wife drew my attention to a remarkable Indian man, Narayanan Krishnan, who gave up a lucrative career opportunity in Europe and decided to devote his life to feeding the hungry in Madurai, India.
The critical event which brought about a transformation in his life was not a lecture by an ethicist but something else. As he puts it:
“”I saw a very old man, literally eating his own human waste out of hunger. I went to the nearby hotel and asked them what was available. They had idli, which I bought and gave to the old man. Believe me, I had never seen a person eating so fast, ever. As he ate the food, his eyes were filled with tears. Those were the tears of happiness.”
You can learn more about this man (and more from him than all the ethicists put together) here:
Amod Lele said:
Yes… and one could cite other examples where the moment that provoked positive transformation was a vision of God or angels, or a meditative experience.
No doubt you will want to point to cases where such “religious” transformation was negative, made people worse; and you would be right to do so. But that much, I think, helps make the case for the ethicists: transformative moments can be for the worse as well as well as the better. We need reflection to see which is which.
Wonderful post, Amod.
Just curious — do you know how the studies measure ethics in determining that ethicists are no more ethical than others? If it is based on some multiple choice exam, isn’t that measuring ethics based on a simplistic yes or no code of conduct and avoiding the complexities of life that you argue (rightly, I believe) is the true test of ethical action?
Also, do you know the extent to which virtue ethics has come up with a path or methods for cultivating virtue? Or is the field limited to discussions of the nature of virtue in the abstract?
Amod Lele said:
Jim, the survey results are online here:
They were measuring perceived behaviour rather than actual behaviour – what do people in philosophy departments, who have the opportunity to observe ethicists, think about the ethical behaviour of ethicists (or lack thereof)?
Re the second question: it’s a good one. Virtue ethicists talk about practice in haphazard ways – not surprising since the field is so nebulous. Alasdair MacIntyre says a lot of general things about practices as the context for nurturing virtue, but doesn’t give us the details for how that happens. Martha Nussbaum, by contrast, turns to the specific practice of reading literature (especially novels), and talks a lot about how it can give us empathy and make us more compassionate people. I suspect the question’s going to be taken up more in the years to come. Jonathan Schofer, who was on my dissertation committee, was always pushing me to say more about Śāntideva’s account of practices for the cultivation of virtue.
Ethan Mills said:
You make some good points, but let me play devil’s advocate and suggest that the purpose of thought-experiments is to test concepts by subjecting them to extreme conditions, just as a physicist would test the properties of a metal by subjecting it to extreme heat or pressure. It’s not that such situations are likely to ever occur, but if your ethical (or epistemological, metaphysical, etc.) principles can deal with extreme thought-experiments like the trolley or the organ harvesting case, then maybe you have solid principles that can be applied to messier, less extreme cases in real life. This is how I describe thought-experiments to my students (aside from the fact that they are good philosophical fun).
Maybe this is where the Aristotelian notion of phronesis or the Mencian notion of wisdom come in: knowing how to apply the general principles that have survived the thought-experiments in actual situations.
“if your ethical (or epistemological, metaphysical, etc.) principles can deal with extreme thought-experiments like the trolley or the organ harvesting case, then maybe you have solid principles that can be applied to messier, less extreme cases in real life.”
So, which principles can deal with the trolley or the organ harvesting case? And how can they be applied to at least one real life case?
I sometimes get the impression that philosophers produce a great deal of “sound and fury signifying nothing” on these “thought-experiments”.
As I see it, the main point of the hypothetical trolley scenarios is to inquire into whether there is a morally significant difference between (a) the act of diverting the trolley toward the one individual and away from the five individuals, and (b) the act of pushing the fat person onto the path of the trolley with the intent to stop it from hitting the five individuals.
One can, of course, add variations to these scenarios.
What if, in the first scenario, the lone individual was an eminent scientist about to find a cure for cancer?
What if the five individuals were criminals?
What if the fat person was an eminent scientist about to find a cure for Alzheimer’s?
What if all of them were criminals?
What if all of them were eminent scientists on the brink of discovering cures for deadly diseases?
What if the fat person was your brother or father?
What if the five persons were your siblings and the fat person was a stranger?
We can go on and on.
I think that these much-vaunted “thought-experiments”, or to put it plainly, hypothetical scenarios, simply raise puzzles which do not admit of any correct solutions. Their value consists in their capacity to provoke moral thinking and to illustrate the relativity of the proposed answer to one of many competing principles.
But since ethicists already know that moral problems can have competing answers based on competing principles, what do they gain by adding more grist to their Gedankenexperiment mills?