Teaching Ethics with “The Trolley Problem”

A very popular way to explore the ethics of utilitarianism involves a fat man and a trolley. Stop me if you have heard this one …

Would you pull the switch to save five people–and here is the catch–but you will kill one person?  Most people are more able to solve this problem of a speeding trolley by pulling a switch rather than “pushing a fat bystander in front of it.”

This dilemma is explored by two books, The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart and Would You Kill the Fat Man? by David Edmonds, reviewed in the WSJ:

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 – WSJ.com.

So how does this apply? On The Korbel Report (University of Denver), Alexander Bowe makes the connection between this scenario and Washington’s policy approach on Syria.  The problem of using drones is another issue, explored here. (Daily Kos) and even Michael Sandel explores these issues in his landmark book, Justice, and in this TED Talk, “What’s the right thing to do?”

This can be a useful way to explore utilitarianism–but as a few years ago John Holbo pointed out how the trolley problem is easily mocked, filled with ad absurdum elements–and even considered by some to be “the apotheosis of analytic-style absurdity.”


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