Booklist | ‘The Trolley Problem’ by Thomas Cathcart | ‘Would You Kill the Fat Man?’ by David Edmonds –

Book Review: 'The Trolley Problem' by Thomas Cathcart | 'Would You Kill the Fat Man?' by David Edmonds -

Two new books address a fascinating dilemma involving a trolley and the lives of others.  Could it explain opposition to Obamacare?

This area of study germane to the field of philosophy explores the complexity and innate nature of our moral judgements within the framework of ethical decision-making and is an important area to consider for anyone interested in decision-making and leadership at the individual level:

In fact, the two versions of the trolley problem, a famous thought-experiment in philosophy, elicit instinctive versions of two conflicting ethical impulses, ones elaborated by Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant respectively: utilitarianism, which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number and judges actions by their consequences; and deontology, which insists, among much else, that certain rights can\’t be violated under any circumstances.

This conflict is at the heart of two new books that use the trolley problem and its many permutations to explore how people make ethical judgments. For all the hairsplitting that the problem has inspired—a quantity of commentary that “makes the Talmud look like Cliffs Notes,” in the words of the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah—the moral dilemmas are profound. They are manifest in our political system, for example, when we face choices that will penalize some for the good of all, or at least of others, as is the case when we debate the legitimacy of taxation and redistribution, the justification for war, the uses of torture, or the justice of affirmative action.

via Book Review: ‘The Trolley Problem’ by Thomas Cathcart | ‘Would You Kill the Fat Man?’ by David Edmonds –


4 thoughts on “Booklist | ‘The Trolley Problem’ by Thomas Cathcart | ‘Would You Kill the Fat Man?’ by David Edmonds –”

  1. Perhaps it’s because I find the moral imperative compelling, but I find myself firmly in the camp of the utilitarians. What’s interesting to me about this question is the difference between what would happen in the moment, and what happens when people have time to think about a decision. If a trolley car is coming, and I only have a few seconds to act, I probably wouldn’t push the fat man in front of the car. There is something about a deliberate act of murder that seems wrong to the mind, no matter the circumstance. Yet, if I were given a minute to think about it, I would probably push the fat man in front of the tracks. Why is this?

    I know that philosophy can be somewhat inaccessible, but I think everyone should watch “Justice” with by Michael Sandel, offered on iTunes U through Harvard. I found Professor Sandel’s lectures to be much more engaging than the Philosophy 201 class I took (and helped me actually understand what my professor’s powerpoint slides actually meant). Mr. Sandel’s first and second lectures are on the Trolley Car dilemma, and they’re well worth the 50 minutes you’ll spend watching. Next time you’re browsing for something to watch on netflix, just watch this instead. Seriously, they’re really good. Best of all, it’s free.

  2. It is interesting that when given the trolley problem, 90% would not throw a fat man over the bridge onto the tracks, but when faced with pulling the lever, the same percentage of people would sacrifice one to save five. The correlation Conover draws between this problem and Obamacare is also interesting. Why is it that 90% of people would not push one fat man over to save five, but when presented with a similar situation in the form of Obamacare, their actions are contrary to what they were in the trolley problem? It may be that Obamacare is more like the first scenario, where either way someone is going to die anyways, or it could be that the severity of the choice affects people’s decisions; murder is a lot worse than kicking someone off their health insurance.

    1. It’s interesting to me that one of the least debated points of Obamacare are the ethical ramifications of promoting health insurance for everyone. Republicans are constantly talking about how people can’t afford the affordable care act’s new health insurance, or that the government does not have the right to force citizens to purchase healthcare. However, there seems to be less substantive debate on the philosophical underpinnings of Obamacare. In a sense, the affordable care act is forcing citizens to buy insurance that Obama has deemed to be in the best interest of society. Why then do we do not debate about what the “good” of our society is with healthcare? Republicans claim that “death panels” should not be able to define what types of healthcare are best for the societal good, but then Republicans fail to define any plausible alternative definition. Sure, they claim that individuals should be able to determine the ends of their own healthcare plans, but I would dispute the validity of this argument; making rational choice depends on consumers knowing what their choices are; how many individual consumers are adequately informed about what best health care options are in their position? Can we really expect individuals to make cost effective decisions about their health care when their teleological end is the most effective treatment possible? Is a 5% risk in side effects for certain treatment merit thousands more dollars per person for a more advanced treatment? Republicans are transfixed upon the idea that America should have the world’s “best” health care, but what do they mean by that? By the way we spend on health care, it would seem that Republicans want to define good health care as having the ability to choose the kind of treatments that make people most healthy, but without budget constraints, meaning that consumers will most likely always pick the most expensive option on the assumption that the more expensive option is always effective. What this means in effect is that the teleological ends of health care in this country is determined by insurance companies and doctors, not patients, and not the government. America’s current system is flawed because the teleological ends of healthcare are not aligned with our health care institutions. The end goal of the healthcare industry is to make money, and the way to make money in this country is to offer very expensive treatments and have insurance pay for it, it’s not to make us healthy. That’s what happens when consumers are uninformed about their choices and government chooses not to legislate what the goal of a particular industry should be.

      Contrast this with the U.K. approach to healthcare, which requires the public to allow the state to define what the virtue of “health” is. This means that British health care system can define some parts of health care as less virtuous (say, knee replacements and needlessly expensive tests/treatments) compared to other more “essential” parts of health care (preventative healthcare and hospital emergency rooms). However, by allowing the state to define the teleological ends of its health care industry, doctors in the United Kingdom have an economic incentive that is aligned with the end goals of their practice; making people more healthy (as defined by the U.K.). Thus health care costs can be far lower, while the more “essential” parts of the U.K. healthcare system are preserved.

      We really need to have more debate on what good health care is, and not on who should get it, or who can afford it, or how much doctors get paid. Until we’ve defined this most basic question, the debates around health care reform will be incapable of improving our healthcare system.

  3. I believe that the most important question in the trolley problem is: “Who is the insane James Bond villain tying people to train tracks, and how do we thwart his diabolical schemes in the future?”

    Maybe sometimes we come across such ugly choices created by Nature Herself. But if we’re growing enough food to feed the world it’s wrong to let people starve to death, and if we’re training enough doctors and manufacturing enough drugs to visit and care for all the world’s sick, it’s wrong to let people go without.

    That’s my gut response, anyhow. Taylor’s point about the teleology of health care made a lot of sense to me; one of these days if I have time I should check out the Sandel lectures and see if they change my mind about any of this.

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