Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Trolley Car Absurdity

Time Magazine today gives us a list of questions that are used to study morality. These are all questions where a person needs to make a choice to kill a smaller number of people to save a larger number, and asks, “Can you do so?”

It includes three versions of the famous trolley car question, which I discussed Friday in “What Makes Us Moral?” A run-away train is going down a track where it will hit (and kill) five people, but you have the option of flipping a switch (or, alternatively, throwing somebody onto the track) and thus kill one person instead of five.

Is this moral or immoral?

In desire utilitarian terms, this is nonsense.

In desire utilitarian terms, we have reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

One of the most significant factors in evaluating a desire as ‘good’ (that which we have reason to promote) or ‘bad’ (that which we have reason to inhibit) is its effect on real-world actions. We need to take into consideration how often, in the real world, the person is going to have to make the type of choice in which that desire will be a relevant factor.

Assume that there is a desire that will cause agents to act in ways that tend to fulfill the desires of others in hundreds of real-world cases, and will cause agents to act in ways that thwart the desires of others in 1 case that only a hand full of people in all of human history has ever faced. Preparing agents so that they are motivated to act in a particular way in these rare – nearly unique circumstances would put them at risk of doing significant harm to others in hundreds of situations that happen every day.

Then, clearly, we have reason to promote a set of desires that elicit desire-fulfilling behavior in hundreds of real-world cases, and not worry that this will elicit desire-thwarting behavior in rare, almost-unique circumstances. Indeed, we have reason to praise (and to feel pride in) being the type of person who would perform the desire-thwarting act in these rare circumstances, because these are the people who do the most good (or are less likely to do evil) in the hundreds of real-world cases.

In each of these cases, the aversion that I am alluding to is the aversion to killing another person, versus an aversion to simply allowing a person to die.

We have good reason for this distinction in desire-utilitarian terms. Hundreds of millions of people die every year in ways that we cannot prevent. An aversion to letting people die that is as strong as our aversion to killing would make emotional wrecks of us all. We need to accept death as a part of life.

On the other hand, an aversion to killing, generally promoted throughout a community, makes those individuals safer to be around.

If I give everybody in my community an aversion to killing then, quite simply, I am much safer. Yes, this means that they will be less likely to kill one person to save five in trolley-car type cases. However, since I do not expect that I will ever be a potential victim in a real-world trolley care type case, I have no real-world reason to be concerned about this possibility. Instead, I face a much more real-world possibility of being killed (or of having somebody I care about being killed) by somebody who deliberately kills others – a murderer, be it a terrorist bomber, an armed robber, or simply somebody who enjoys killing.

In fact, I offer this as one piece of evidence of why theories that hold that morality is primarily focused on desires and only derivatively focused on actions are better than action-based moral theories. These types of cases present a problem for action-based theories. They simply cannot understand an act that results in more people dying rather than fewer in rare (highly contrived) circumstances that will almost never occur in real life.

However, desire-based theories have an easy answer. Because these situations will almost never occur in real life, we do not need to psychologically prepare people to do the best act in these circumstances. We need to psychologically prepare people to do the best act in every-day real-world circumstances. If the desires that define a person as a ‘good person’ in the real world causes them to hesitate in highly contrived moral thought-experiments, so what? Morality is not designed to work in these imaginary worlds. They are designed to work in the real world.

If the real-world was one where people faced these types of choices on a regular basis, and the body count was rising significantly, and we were all living in fear of being run over by trolleys, we may insist on promoting a different set of desires. We would also have a great deal of opportunity to promote those desires, given that the daily occurrences of trolley car accidents would give us daily opportunities to exercise praise and condemnation. However, the fact that this is not that world is highly significant. Yet, it is a fact that trolley car moral theorists too often overlook.


Anonymous said...

I’d like to go back to a theme you’ve addressed in several previous posts: that of genetics in morality. Am I correct in the following analysis?
A sociopath who commits all kinds heinous deeds because he is genetically unable to feel empathy and gets pleasure from causing pain is not evil because these desires were genetically determined.
A person who has a genetic disposition to harm others, but is not compelled to do it (the desires are malleable) and is treated badly in childhood such that he develops non-malleable bad desires is not evil because these desires are no longer malleable, but would be if they were.
A person who has many bad desires, but due to fear or selfish reasons, always acts in ways we have reasons to promote, i.e., always acts in ways to benefit others, is the truly evil person because he has malleable bad desires, even if these bad desires are never expressed.

Squarehead said...

If the trolley car will kill five people unless you throw someone on the tracks killing just that one person, why not throw yourself on the tracks?

I had a drill sgt. in basic training, a very long time ago, who would say the following.

"Do something, do anything even if it's wrong. Don't just stand there".

I like this blog. It makes you think. We don't do enough of that anymore.

Anonymous said...

"Do something, do anything even if it's wrong. Don't just stand there".

That's very bad advice to give a mutual fund manager. They tend to trade more often than would maximize returns.

Squarehead said...

Hey Doug S.
That's really very funny. I'm laughing so hard I knocked the keyboard shelf out of it's track..
I really needed a good laugh I guess. Is dry wit a common trait amongst mutual fund managers?
Thanks for the chuckle man.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

I responded to your question in today's post