A satisfying resolution to trolley problems

Note: This post is based on a conversation I had with Dave about a month ago. I was recently reminded of it by a discussion on moral philosophy and thought it might be worth writing up.

Certain types of moral philosophers are very keen on trolley problems. You may have encountered these. They’re endless variants on approximately the following problem:

A runaway trolley is hurtling down a track. If it continues on its original route it will hit and kill 5 people. You have the opportunity to pull a lever which will divert it onto another route where it will only kill one person. No you can’t be a smartarse and come up with a clever solution which avoids these options, because reasons.

I’m not a fan of trolley problems. I think they oversimplify the landscape in which you make moral decisions. Most decisions are not this clear cut: Not only do you have uncertainty about the outcomes (which you can reason about), you also shouldn’t entirely trust your own reasoning process in these circumstances because you’re in a heightened emotional state which will introduce weird biases. So although you the person being asked this question might have perfect knowledge about the situation and know that you are detached from it and acting without emotional involvement, the hypothetical you standing there with  lever and a difficult decision to make does not have these reassurances. Have they missed something? Are they sure their judgement isn’t horribly compromised by the fact that they’re in a panic? Do they even have time to think things through or must they just act or not act before the decision is taken out of their hands?

Still, thinking through what you should do in these sorts of scenarios before you are in them is exactly what you need in order to sharpen your moral sense and ensure that you act correctly without having to think things through, right?

So here you are. You have two options. You can choose not to act, and let 5 people die, or you can act and kill someone, saving five peoples’ lives.

I think there are legitimate and consistent moral systems in which you choose not to act. I think they’re not the sort you want to apply when designing larger scale systems of action, but I think as a personal choice it’s completely valid and it might well be the option I’d take if you put me at the lever of an actual trolley.

What I want to talk about is when you choose to act. I think there is a strictly superior option which cannot be finagled away by redesigning the question that anyone who thinks that they should pull the lever should follow instead.

Which is that you pull the lever and then you turn yourself in to the relevant authorities for having committed murder.

Oh you will, and you probably should, get a reduced sentence because of all those lives you saved, but you’ve taken a life, and you should be treated accordingly.

Why should you be punished by the system when you’ve done nothing wrong and in fact made the correct moral choice?

Well, why should the person whose life you took be punished by your actions when they’ve done nothing wrong and were just an unfortunate innocent bystander?

That’s not a judgement, it’s just an analogy. I am pointing out that you have already committed yourself to a system in which actions are taken not because of some intrinsic justice or fairness, but because they produce the greater good.

Lets adjust the problem slightly. Suppose you’re tied to the track along with the other person who is going to get killed when you pull the lever. Now two people will get killed when you do, and one of them is you. Five versus two, still a great deal from a moral calculus perspective, right? But I bet you’re going to think a lot harder about it.

And this is why I think it works out: When you find yourself in a situation where your reasoning is suspect, it’s very easy to think that your actions are justified if they help , and that that gets you off the hook for the consequences of them. The fact that you will always be held accountable for the consequences of your actions creates the right sort of barrier to that: By requiring an element of self-sacrifice in order to cause harm, it forces you to think about that justification much harder, and maybe decide that on balance you don’t want to have to make this call.

This doesn’t necessarily produce a better outcome in every case. Indeed, in every case where acting was the right thing to do it produces a worse outcome than  pulling the lever and getting off without punishment. What it does is in aggregate produce a better outcome, because it makes it harder for people to decide that the ends they want justify any means, and it helps to put the brakes on the excesses people commit because they decide that it was the right thing to do.

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3 thoughts on “A satisfying resolution to trolley problems

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