Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Trolley Problems

A few days ago I summarised an article by John Daley on the differing approaches that may be taken in dealing with the current coronavirus pandemic. In that post I quoted one of the concluding paragraphs of that article: 

Each of the endgames are unpleasant. COVID-19 is the real-life “trolley problem” in which someone is asked to choose between killing a few or killing many. When any of us are presented with the trolley problem, the all-but universal response is to refuse to choose. That is what we are doing at the moment, and it will just make our problems worse. 
This prompted me to look up the “trolley problem” and found that it posits some challenging, but horrible, scenarios in which one is asked to make choices, in some of the examples the choice being as awful, if not more, than that forced upon Sophie. 

Just when you think that the answer is to apply Spock’s theorem from The Wrath of Khan – “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” – the parameters are changed and you are challenged anew. 

Philippa Foot, an English philosopher and one of the founders of virtue ethics, introduced the modern form of the trolley problem in 1967. 

The general form of the problem is this: 
There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:  
Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.  
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.  
Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do? 

There is no “correct” answer, but here are some things to consider: 
- Does the Spock theorem apply? 
- Is it right to intervene? 
- Is it morally wrong not to intervene? 

So let’s introduce a variation: 
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? 

Again, some considerations: 
- If one is willing to pull the lever in the earlier example, what is the difference in pushing the fat man? 
- Is it that in the first example the person pulling the lever does not intend harm to the single person, it is a side effect. Not so in killing the fat man. 
- Is it not worth killing one to save the many? What if you could go back in time and shoot Hitler? 
- On the other hand, is it a situation where one may take action which has bad side effects, but deliberately intending harm (even for good causes) is wrong? 

Another variation: 
In this scenario the fat man is the villain who placed the 5 persons in danger on the track.

Is it now okay to push the fat man onto the track? 
This scenario is sometimes used in a practical context: is it justified to torture someone to reveal the whereabouts of a ticking bomb that will kill many? 

Even more variations for you to consider: 
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people and you can divert it onto a secondary track. However, in this variant the secondary track later rejoins the main track, so diverting the trolley still leaves it on a track which leads to the five people. But, the person on the secondary track is a fat person who, when he is killed by the trolley, will stop it from continuing on to the five people. Should you flip the switch?

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveller, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor. Do you support the morality of the doctor to kill that tourist and provide his healthy organs to those five dying people and save their lives?

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You can divert its path by colliding another trolley into it, but if you do, both will be derailed and go down a hill, and into a yard where a man is sleeping in a hammock. He would be killed. Should you proceed?

What is your view if, in the original scenario, the one person is the son of the person who can pull the lever? 
Interesting hypotheticals, right? 

Then consider this . . . 

An actual case approximating the trolley problem occurred on June 20th, 2003, when a runaway string of 31 unmanned Union Pacific freight cars were barrelling toward Los Angeles along the mainline #1 track. To avoid the runaway train from entering the Union Pacific yards in Los Angeles, where it would not only cause damage, but a Metrolink passenger train was thought to be located, dispatchers ordered the shunting of the runaway cars to track 4, through an area with lower density housing of mostly lower income residents. The switch to track 4 was rated for 15mph transits, and dispatch knew the cars were moving significantly faster, thus likely causing a derailment. The train, carrying over 3800 tons of mostly lumber and building materials, then derailed into the residential neighborhood in Commerce, California, crashing through several houses on Davie Street. A pregnant woman asleep in one of the houses was injured but managed to escape through a window and was "miraculously" uninjured by the lumber and steel train wheels that fell around her. 

So what would you do in the trolley problems and what approach to the pandemic would you choose?

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