Trolley Madness

Friday, July 1, AD 2011

At last, I have come across the Trolley Problem which truly gets at the difficulties of modern life.

On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.

On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans’ bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, ‘Leftie,’ and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, ‘Leftie’ will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of ‘Leftie’s’ act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by ‘Leftie’ are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and ‘Leftie’ are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available; however, the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.

Assume that the brain’s choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.

What should the brain do?

Excerpted from:
– Michael F. Patton Jr., “Tissues in the Profession: Can Bad Men Make Good Brains Do Bad Things?”, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, January 1988

10 Responses to Trolley Madness

  • “Imagine you can only make one of two choices, and they’re both bad, and really complicated, and have some good come of them. What do you do?”

    “I call up Spiderman.”

  • (Can you tell I really hate these sort of philosophy questions?)

  • Indeed. I really loath the “thought experiment” approach to moralizing. I thought this did a pretty good job of showing up the absurdity of trolleyology and the like.

  • *grin* Sadly, I can see someone proposing this and being serious.

    Keep in mind, this is from someone who has a scheduled post coming up about what the X-men do wrong in their PR, and how unrealistic the response to them is; I could be a bit off-norm in what I consider serious.

  • We need the pop-top can.

  • “What should the brain do? ”

    Reprogram this Kobayashi Maru scenario.

  • The moral choice is to take the left fork.

    You guys are missing the simple logic of it all. In all the complexity of body counts, good and evil, and multigeneraltional chains of events, the author gives you the ultimate clue. The guy on the left track is named Leftie.

  • I’m just glad that the guy who designed the equipment to retrofit old soda kegs into homebrew kegs wasn’t involved. We need him.

  • Play golf. Then, whatever happens blame President Bush and make up jokes about Congresswoman Bachman’s confusion over where in Iowa John Wayne was born.

    This solution assumes the trolleybrain is named Barracks Obama.

  • An issue with this type of hypothical is that it promotes rationalization and that there is no right or moral answer. These are typically given to 18-22 year olds that do not have the knowledge to dismiss them as the junk moral problem they are by professors with an agenda.