Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Fat Man Conundrum

Or: the trolley problem. Article.

This article has the best example I've yet seen to illustrate what a strange relationship humans have with morality, especially when killing is involved.

  • Invented by moral philosopher Professor Judith Jarvis Thomson, who taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Case one: A runaway tram is heading towards five people tied to tracks. You are a bystander. Would you flick a switch so it turned down a line where one person was tied to the tracks?
  • Case two: Same problem, but you are watching from a footbridge. You could push a fat man next to you off the bridge, and his bulk would stop the tram. Would you do it?
Almost nobody would do the second one, but it's quite hard to explain why that would be less ethical.

I would tentatively suggest that the two cases are the same in terms of pure ethics, the only thing separating them is how active you have to be. Killing stirs up our subconscious guilt, and the stirring is directly related to how actively we are doing it. 

8 comments:

Fase said...

what about -

Case three: Same problem, but you a fat man watching from a footbridge. You could jump offnthe bridge, and your bulk would stop the tram. Would you do it?

Fase said...

a case of bad proof reading

Case three: Same problem, but you are a fat man watching from a footbridge. You could jump off the bridge, and your bulk would stop the tram. Would you do it?

eolake said...

Different problem, but not much easier! (Except if it's "HELL no!")

Joe said...

I think it is a evaluation you make to have the best possible outcome.

Believe Spock said in The Wrath of Khan.

"logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

The problem is when we let our emotions interfere with decision making process.

When there is a event where many people are injured. The responders will triage the injuries.

Triage separates the injured into four groups:

The deceased who are beyond help
The injured who can be helped by immediate transportation
The injured whose transport can be delayed
Those with minor injuries, who need help less urgently .

Joe

Anonymous said...

a case of bad proof reading

And in both, a case of bad reasoning. I'd be willing to bet they thought of that obvious question, but know that it's irrelevant because it's an ethics question about murder, not suicide.

Fase said...

I would have thought suicide was self murder by any other name, especially since there seems to be an assumption in these cases that all people are equal so it comes down to numbers, the dilemma with the fat man, I presume, is that most people would have some empathy with him as hes standing right next to them

Anonymous said...

Suicide isn't murder. Murder, for one thing, is a legal definition which doesn't apply to all killings. The courts decide if it's murder or not. If you choose to take your own life...well, even if the courts decided it was murder, they can't arrest you for it. Maybe at best attempted murder if you manage to botch it.

You are logic machine, dude. Don't got to law school.

Anna Aniko said...

"Almost nobody would do the second one, but it's quite hard to explain why that would be less ethical."

Nicolas Baumard wrote his thesis to answer this question. He probably has a paper about it, now I don't have references.

It's thrilling. :)