Moral (5): Trolleyology

One foot in the dilemma

In the trolley problem, I explicitly take the utilitarian morality that prevails in the majority of responses on the wrong foot. I stage the companion of the man sacrificed to save 5 others. Whoever killed him must explain his action in front of her. The man was not destined to die that day. No one asked him for his opinion. The decision-maker took himself for God, or at least for the executor of an unassailable ideal. Ordinary utilitarianism can hide a certain fanaticism.

These flaws of utilitarianism appear spontaneously in the version of the dilemma involving the obese man who must be pushed from the point on the path to save the other 5. The answers are reversed. the majority of responders refuse this time to attack the obese, while they sacrificed the isolated man in the previous version. Should we conclude that our mind is fundamentally irrational?

The irrational human by nature?

This is the discourse that the utilitarians, a little disappointed, give us. Their ideal is right! We should rush to sacrifice the obese. If we hesitate, it is because our mind has biases, preventing us from making the “right” decision. Yes, but their listeners, changing their answer after being convinced, continue to have the intuition to do wrong. So should our identity be reduced to this idealistic fringe that wants to reduce the world to an abstract morality? Or should it include all that we are?

Let’s get out of the thought experiment for a moment and put ourselves in a real situation, forced to concretely push an obese man off a bridge to make him crash on the track. Witness the massacre. If I ignore my intuition that there is a problem, I will have nightmares for a long time. And it is not the satisfaction of having saved the other 5 that would erase them. The image of the 5 survivors, never met before, will fade faster than that of the obese violently hit.

Would you kill the Fat Man?

An excellent book developing the dilemma is ‘Would You Kill the Fat Man?‘ by David Edmonds. The author recounts the origin of this thought experiment, its countless variants, the connections with other debates on morality and neuroscience. A subject so rich that it has become a philosophical discipline in its own right: trolleyology.

Edmonds dismantles the overly assured discourses on possible choices and interpretations, to the point that all become ambivalent. In the end he refuses to push the obese, but makes it a personal choice and not a philosophical demonstration. Is there a course of action as solid as that of the utilitarians, but a little less simplistic?

The Simple Calculations of Utilitarianism

The followers of Jeremy Bentham, creator of utilitarianism, start from a very basic premise: all the richness of an individual, his nuances, his history, his goodness and his vileness, all this equals 1. Any individual equals 1, no matter their age, whether they are from your family, dear friend or hated enemy. Everyone knows the rudeness of this postulate on a daily basis. And yet it is one of the essential foundations of our social conscience. Utilitarians are based on a collective and abstract postulate, while individuals at work also take into account personal and concrete criteria. Utilitarianism is not a pragmatism in fact.

Edmonds takes up this premise to assume that the initial utilitarian response to the dilemma is correct. The switch has to be manoeuvred. Moreover, a majority adopts it. First mistake that will prevent him from finding a model unifying the different versions of the dilemma. It is the stripping of the problem in the initial version that makes the brief success of utilitarianism. It is easy to weaken it with more realistic contexts, even without using the obese.

Between one and a thousand

Suppose that in the Switch version, the men to be saved are 2 and no longer 5. Is it still morally justified to maneuver the switch? And if the couple to be saved is a man and his dog, is the animal a sufficient deposit to go and kill the other? If there is only one person on each path, what does utilitarianism say? Since the importances are all at 1, should we shoot a coin? I imagine Bentham showing the deceased’s girlfriend the piece that decided his gesture…

On the other hand, if the people to be saved are a hundred, a thousand… not many people would hesitate to sacrifice a person, even in the Obese version. Is morality a question of numbers in the end? But why is it more difficult to push the obese than to maneuver the switch, for the same result?

To zap individual interest?

The utilitarian places himself in a purely collective perspective. In doing so, he obscures the real engine of the problem, and of morality: the conflict between individual and collective, which I have called T<>D (soliTary versus soliDary). This conflict is omnipresent and concerns the multiple dimensions of our behaviors. There is thus a wide variety of notes to apply to any moral choice, at different qualitative levels.

The difficulty is to synthesize together these foreign qualities. Most of the treatment is done unconsciously. Consciousness is offered solutions that have already been analyzed deeply, multi-criteria. Its effort is to exercise a choice between these sophisticated solutions. Should we renounce all punishment by simply counting individuals on the 2 ways, as recommended by utilitarians?

The Doctrine of Double Effect

Edmonds explains the contrast between the choices of the Referral and Obese versions by the Doctrine of the Double Effect (DDE), taken from Aquinas: “Intentional murder can never be justified. But if the person is threatened, and the only option is to kill the assailant, then murder is morally permissible, because the intention is to protect oneself and not to kill the other.”

Philippa Foot invented the trolley problem to explain the DDE. In ‘moral murder’, there is not one effect but two: the expected effect and the predictable but unwanted effect. Foot’s goal was to reject the use of DDE against abortion, at a time when it was still penalized. By this doctrine the Church designated the few acceptable abortions: killing the fetus to save the mother. It is to give death without intention to do so, the expected effect being to protect the mother. The doctrine is used in many other circumstances: collateral damage from a military operation, administration of lethal painkillers to a dying person.

Philippa Foot’s dilemmas

The first version of the dilemma invented by Foot is not the best known. The tram has a driver and it is he, without the possibility of braking, who has the choice to change lanes to avoid 5 people, but he will kill 1 if he does. Changing lanes seems reasonable. The driver is directly involved in at least one death. It can reduce the slaughter it will cause. The DDE applies. Killing the isolated person is not his 1st intention.

The 2nd example of Foot is also easy to decide: a doctor can save 1 patient who requires a massive dose of a drug, or 5 others with only 1/5 of the dose for each. He chooses without hesitation the second option. Everyone approves… and criticizes the administration that did not fund 2 doses 😉

Dr. Abuse

The 3rd example turns everything upside down. In a transplant department, 5 people are urgently waiting for an organ, otherwise they will die. 2 need a kidney, 2 a lung, the last one a heart. It turns out that another healthy man is perfectly compatible with the 5 sick. Does the doctor have to sacrifice it to save the other 5? Horror grips us. Inconceivable! Who would want to set foot in a hospital if such a thing happened?

The final result is however identical for a utilitarian: 1 sacrificed for 5 saved. But the intention to murder is this time a mandatory prerequisite and not a possible adverse effect. In the Switch, the isolated victim is not necessary. The decision-maker is delighted if he manages to get away from the track. Everyone is saved! In Transplantation this is impossible. The healthy guy must die.

The Isolated can die, the Obese must die

This is why DDE is proposed as an explanation for the Obese. He too can only save the other 5 by dying. The situation is similar to Switch only in appearance. For the Obese the intention of murder is prior. Pushing it is not moral.

But another version, the Loop, discredits this explanation. The crossing lane is always occupied by a person, who is obese. Only he can stop the crazy wagon and it is imperative, because this track comes back in a loop on the main track, where the other 5 are. If you have maneuvered the switch in the 1st version, you will tend to do it also in the Loop, for the same result. Yet here the DDE says this time that the murder is no longer moral. You know that the Obese must die to save the other 5. His death is no longer a side effect.

Duties and rights

Philippa Foot, for this reason, does not use the DDE to explain the discrepancy in our choices. She prefers to indicate that we have positive and negative duties with others. The negatives are not to interfere with their lives! The positives to help them as much as possible. In Transplantation, the positive duty of the doctor towards the 5 patients disappears in front of the negative duty which is not to attack the life of the potential donor.

Judith Thomson was passionate about the Trolley Problem of Foot and drew the most well-known presentation from it. She also avoids recourse to the DDE and talks about the fundamental rights of everyone. Everything would be different if the Obese decided alone to jump off the bridge. To do so in his place is an unacceptable violation of his rights.

But in the Switch also the rights of the isolated individual are violated, as I explain in the introduction. It is therefore not a satisfactory explanation for the contrasting responses for Switch and Obese. The real reason is that the dilemma is fundamentally insolvent. The interest of the isolated individual is in irreducible opposition to the collective interest. Judith Thomson chose individual law, Jeremy Bentham collective law. This is not a solution, as any layman perceives.

Modeling the individual vs the collective

The T<>D principle, at the heart of this blog, shows its nose. Conflict between my individualism (the T of soliTary) and my collectivism (the D of soliDary). The T is of interest only to myself as we share our D’s. I may defend someone else’s T, but I do so only because in defending his individual right I hope he will do the same with mine. This is not collectivism but groupism. True collectivism is the fusion of the D’s, that is, to support the policy recognized as profitable by the greatest number. More details in Groupism versus collectivism. But let’s see above all how this principle will resolve the contradictions between our answers to the famous dilemma.

The essential feature of the principle is that it is an insolvent conflict. It is not possible to fully satisfy the T (the individualistic aspiration) otherwise life in society would become chaos. Also impossible to fully satisfy the D (collectivist aspiration), our personality would be stifled within a human hive. Our minds are constantly looking for a balance to this conflict.

The madness of extremes

To understand this necessity, let’s illustrate the effects of too severe a deviation:

For an ultimate imbalance towards the T, let us quote David Hume: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to a cut on my finger”. This sentence does not say that the human is unreasonable by nature, it refers the root of the mental process to the T<>D principle, more elementary than reason.

Example of an ultimate imbalance towards the D: Suppose that in the Switch the person to be sacrificed is the adorable little girl of the one who maneuvers the switch. If he does it to save the other 5, he’s not just Jeremy Bentham himself; it is also a mind totally positioned on the D.

Let’s go back to the Switch

Let us apply our conflicting principle to Switch. It is easier to start with the situation where each lane is occupied by a single person. We do not movew” the switch. Why kill an uninvolved person instead of the one initially involved? The T prevents us from doing so. Thomson calls it ‘individual right’. We want to enforce the T of the person not involved in the hope that anyone would do the same in our case. It is not the DDE or any other collectivist judgment that comes to mind. We do not want to subject that person to what we would refuse for us. No one has the spirit of sacrifice to the point of giving his life for that of a complete stranger. Imagine that the other is doomed by cancer to die in a month. The sacrifice would be particularly stupid.

Let us gradually increase the number of people saved against the one sacrificed. At 2 for 1, the utilitarian already says “Banco! Maneuver the switch!». I am not as enthusiastic, as you are no doubt. What for? The utilitarian speaks with the exclusive voice of the D. Two people are now associated in the D, which increases its potency. But the T resists. Perhaps, in a surge of holiness, I would agree to maneuver the switch if it is I who follow the one sacrificed. But that’s not me. I cannot speak for the other, who has probably never heard of Bentham. By refusing to maneuver the switch, I enforce his T, that is, his right to accept or not to be sacrificed. However, he was not consulted. The T forbids manoeuvring.

For the T, no individual is 1/5 of 5 individuals. Only the D considers this to be the case

The T of this single soliTary will nevertheless end up losing in the face of the rise of the D, as the number of people saved increases. In Thomson’s Switch, 80% of respondents, influenced by Bentham’s utilitarianism, have already declared the T less strong than the D of the soliDary fifth. In terms of Thomson’s law, the rights of the isolated individual has become less distinct from those reinforced by the collective of 5.

T<>D describes how we feel

The great interest of T<>D is to match our experience. We perceive for each version of the dilemma that it is a more or less conflictual choice. The satisfaction derived from our response is correlated with this conflict, never complete. The cursor moves between the T and the D. When it clearly indicates one or the other, we respond with confidence. If it is in the middle, indecision paralyzes us.

A version of the Obese with monkeys is only explained by T<>D. When humans are involved, 90% of respondents refuse to push the obese. If they are monkeys, the hesitation disappears, the researchers note. No one has any difficulty sacrificing an obese monkey to save the other 5. We are becoming utilitarians again. No more duties or rights. Why do these notions apply exclusively to us and not to monkeys? A broader theory, the T<>D perfectly explains the shift in opinion:

The monkey is not my cup of T

The T is the individual interest. He tells me, “I am not equal to others.” By extension he tells me the same thing about another isolated human: “He is not equal to others”. But the monkeys don’t awaken my T. Monkeys don’t look like me. They look alike. My D has free field. Just count the monkeys and try to lose as few as possible.

A person who has come to know these animals and differentiate them would not reason that way. The chances are lower that she will push the obese monkey. But there were probably none among the people interviewed. The results could have been different with dogs, which are pets, substitutes for friends or children. Those who are surrounded by them would probably have been less likely to push an obese dog…


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