The Trolley Problem

For the first time in my life, I read an entire book dealing with ethics. And loved it! Tom Cathcart’s The Trolley Problem approaches a famous thought experiment in which a trolley is headed toward 5 people on the track (with the assumption that they will all die if the trolley continues), and a bystander has the opportunity to pull a switch, sending the trolley onto an alternative path where there is only one person who will be killed. Most people agree that pulling the switch is ethical, since five lives are saved, despite the one lost. Many alternate versions of the trolley problem have been devised over time to make different philosophical arguments about ethics and morality. In one version, for example, the trolley is still heading for the 5 innocent people, but a man on a bridge above realizes that if he could throw something heavy in front of the train, it will stop and the five lives will be spared. So he throws a heavyset man, again sacrificing one life to save 5. In this version, the idea that one death is better than five no longer seems to rationalize the person’s action. The trolley problem demonstrates that human ethics are far from clear-cut.

trolley book

In the book, Cathcart makes a thought experiment out of the thought experiment by writing as if the original trolley scenario actually did occur, and Daphne Jones, the woman who pulled the lever and caused the trolley to kill only one person, is on trial for murder. Many different angles are presented, including the prosecutor, defense, a number of professors in various fields, a bishop, a psychologist, and people who call in to express their views on NPR.

Each view is cleverly written, and as one of the jurors admits, regarding the arguments brought up earlier in the book, “After each one of you has spoken, I’ve found myself agreeing with you. Your arguments are all very persuasive – until I hear the next one.” I couldn’t agree with her more.

In the epilogue, Cathcart asks whether we’re any wiser, after hearing arguments for both sides of Daphne’s case. I can only speak for myself, but I feel wiser. This work continually forces the reader to reconsider what seems like a cogent argument, to question intuition, common sense, and rationality. If these faculties are fallible in this fictive case, can we trust them in our real lives?

The section that expressed a professor’s lecture in a class, “Critical Thinking in Contemporary Life,” really struck a chord with me because the subject of the lecture was analogies. She taught that analogies usually compare two people or things without expressing what about them is similar. And while they’re similar, they’re not actually the same, or it would make for a lousy analogy. In the context of Daphne Jones’s case, we have to decide which situation, given a handful of others, some in which the protagonist seems clearly guilty and some in which he/she seems clearly innocent, is most analogous to Daphne’s. The professor warned her class that analogies are “both very useful and very dangerous.” When I read this, I felt the need to both underline this phrase and dog-ear the page. I was pretty excited.

I really loved the interdisciplinary nature of this book – within a few pages, arguments were made based on St. Thomas of Aquinas’s teachings, Jeremy Bentham’s writings, and fMRI findings. As a side note, I’d advise readers to splurge on the physical copy of this book over an e-version, since the cover is a clever depiction of the original thought experiment that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on.

When can we eliminate participants?

This talk by Dan Ariely brings up a point I started thinking about after a summer of working in a lab in which we often recruited participants through Craig’sList. Most of the participants were great, but some were clearly going through the motions in order to collect their $10 compensation. At what point do we decide to exclude certain participants’ data and not others?