Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Desirism and the Trolley Problem

A lot of moral philosophy these days focuses on what is called the "Trolley Car problem."

The Trolley Car problem goes like this:

You are standing on the edge of a track, near a switch. A runaway trolley is coming down the track. Looking down the track, you see five workers who will certainly be killed if you do not act. You can pull the switch. This will send the trolley down a different track. There is only one worker on that track - though he would be killed if you pull the switch.

Do you pull the switch?

One stranger's death or five? Many are reluctant to pull the switch - to cause the death of somebody who would have otherwise lived.

If six people were trapped in a burning building, and you could either rescue five in one room or one person in the attic, few have difficulty deciding to rescue the five. It seems important that the one worker on the track lives unless the agent acts.

Some seem willing to pull the switch. For these people, we alter the trolley car problem. Now, let's say that you can stop the train by pushing a particularly fat man onto the tracks so that the train runs over him and stops. Few people are willing to push the fat man onto the tracks.

What does desirism say about this example?

First, desirism notes that morality is a tool invented to handle everyday situations in the real world. It is poorly designed for imaginary scenarios.

Desirism starts by asking whether a person with good desires would perform such an act.
A desire (or aversion) is good if it tends to promote behavior that fulfills other desires. That gives others reasons to promote that desire, which they can do using social tools such as praise and condemnation.

To determine if a desire objectively fulfills other desires, the behavior it causes in real-world cases that happen billions of times each day is vastly more important than the behavior it might cause in a situation that as almost certainly never occurred and never will occur in the real world.

Given the assumptions of the trolley car problem, we can comfortably say that this will never happen. The greatest problem rests with what the agent is assumed to know with no possibility of error - things no agent can ever know in the real world. He knows that there is no other way to stop or divert the trolley. He knows that the five - or the one - will be killed. Another set of improbabilities lies in the situation itself. How many times in human history has anybody actually found themselves at an unlocked switch she knows how to use with a run-away trolley that will kill a number of people unless diverted to a side track where it would kill fewer?

Because these situations never exist in the real world, it makes no sense for us to evaluate desires according to the actions they may motivate an agent to perform in that situation.

What I would argue for a person to do in this type of situation is to do nothing - but to be ready to take instructions. The reason is because you do not know what you are doing, and people who do know what they are doing hate having to deal with ignorant laymen trying to be the hero. You don't know what they are planning or how your actions will affect those plans.

How would it feel to pull the switch, only to discover that the Trolley Company had rigged a brake between the trolly and the five workers that would have saved everybody's life? I know that this is not how the story goes, but this is how things work in the real world. Morality is a tool designed to work in the real world. It feeds us likes and dislikes that work in real world circumstances.

Note that the situation is different in the case of the fire. Rescuing five people from the fire does not prevent others from rescuing one. In fact, it frees up resources so that others can rescue the one person. This means that our reasons for doing nothing in the case of the trolley are stronger than our reasons for doing nothing in the case of the fire.

The problem with pushing the fat man in front of the tracks comes from asking ourselves, "How safe would we feel being surrounded by people with no aversion to killing any time they think they see an overall advantage?"

We recoil at the thought of pushing the fat man, and we want others to recoil as well.


Because people who recoil at the thought of pushing the fat man are safer neighbors. People who are willing and eager to push the fat man might decide to kill us for some perceived social benefit. When we add the fact that people do a poor job of perceiving social benefit - their vision is often clouded by personal advantage - we see even more reason for worry. We have reason to promote this aversion.

The fact that this aversion might prevent people from pushing a fat man in front of a runaway trolley in a highly idealized situation that can never happen in the real world is irrelevant. An aversion that fails to save five fictional lives can still save millions of real lives.

The implication actually goes further than this.

Praise and condemnation are built into the meanings of moral terms. "Pushing the fat person is wrong" not only prescribes against pushing the fat person. It praises those who would not do so and condemns those who would. This, in turn, promotes real-world desires and aversions. Those desires and aversions persist outside the story and impact real-world actions with real-world consequences.

This is why we are reluctant to say that it may be okay to push the fat man in this idealized piece of fiction. Saying so means, in part, "Everybody in the real world should feel perfectly comfortable with the thought of pushing the fat man." We do not want to say that. What we want to say is, "Everybody in the real world should feel perfectly comfortable with the thought of pushing the fat man." However, the wording for that statement is, "Pushing the fat man onto the tracks is wrong."

At this point the Trolley Car philosopher asks us, "What in the act makes it wrong?"

The answer is: Nothing.

However, that is not the right question to be asking.

The real question is, "How do we feel - how should we feel (what feelings do we have reason to promote in others, and do others have reason to promote in us) - about being surrounded by people who are comfortable with killing whenever they perceive some sort of overall benefit?" We need to answer that question while keeping in mind the fact that people have a habit of magnifying their own costs and benefits while discounting the costs and benefits to others - and people always act to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires.

1 comment:

plutosdad said...

What do you consider the arugments about vaccinations? I have always thought of them as the closest thing to the trolley problem in the real world.

Of course it's not as cut and dried. The ratio is not 5 to 1, it's more like thousands or millions to 1, and the "1" is not death but often allergic reaction. And it's a lottery basically so you don't know. Of course, I've always felt it's the ones who refuse the vaccination that are immoral.

Unless there is a better analogy that corresponds.