Wednesday, March 28, 2007

More problems with trolley problems

It's surprising how many people are currently worried about what to do about runaway trolleys which threaten to run over a group of otherwise anonymous people. Hot on the heels of a study which seemed to show that sleep deprivation promoted consequentialist reactions to moral dilemmas comes a study which seems to indicate that patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPMC) are similarly more likely to opt for promoting the 'greatest good for the greatest number' even in so-called 'Personal Moral Scenarios'. (I gave some examples of what these are in an earlier post; this study appears to use very similar scenarios to the sleep deprivation study.) A report of the study (involving, it has to be said, only 30 subjects) appeared in brief on the New Scientist Website. The New Scientist report makes some excessively grand claims about how these findings might offer a radical challenge to ethical philosophy, but there is probably something interesting going on. (There is a longer article on the findings in the New York Times.) The finished article, 'Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements', appeared in Nature. You can see the abstract and, subscription permitting, download the article here.

I have no idea quite what the VPMC does, exactly, but I bet that it is more complicated than just being involved in 'the emotions'. Precisely what an emotion is, for a start, would be a good question to ask, and it certainly does not follow from this experiment that we need to go for any kind of dualist moral psychology, with on one side the rational calculating faculty and on the other the affective emotional faculty. True, when wondering whether to push someone on to a train line to prevent a greater loss of life further down the tracks, there are all sorts of considerations which we might take into account. Some are rightly concerned with the numbers of people involved in each alternative; others are to do with a personal feeling of responsibility; yet more are to do with fear or excitement or panic. In fact, there is a very good case for the view that all these scenarios seriously misrepresent what it would be like to face any such dilemma in reality. We certainly wouldn't be faced solely with a bare set of propositions, designed by the experimenter to point towards the single variable subject to the testing. Rather, it would be a complicated situation affected by all sorts of factors to do with one's current disposition, the way the surroundings are and are perceived and so on.

In short, scenarios like those touted by this kind of test seem to me not really to offer any significant information about ethical thinking 'in the wild'. While they are useful ways of illustrating particular ethical theoretical views, our reactions to them are hardly indicative of our likely behaviour. It is common, for example, for a student to tell me that they would 'obviously' choose to divert a trolley to kill one person rather than five. I have no idea whether that is true and, I imagine, nor do they. Are they really able to imagine what it would be like to be faced with such a situation? I can't.

People still interested in exploring this kind of thought-experiment might like to ponder the following teaser, by Michael F. Patton jr.:

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.

There's an explanation of the example here. There is a variation on the example here.


Choppa said...

Very briefly, I think the whole issue of "ethical" choices is weird and unreal. So many of us are removed from any opportunity of making real decisions in our lives, of the kind that leave a taste of blood in your mouth. No wonder adrenalin is sought as a substitute for blood that's more readily available - anger, cheating, humiliation, extreme display behaviour, substitute slaughter by proxy or fiction, etc.

The big social decisions, like mutiny vs conformity, are particularly repressed.

Epicurus rejected Democritus's determinism for freedom at all levels of being - atomic to social interaction. But he remained locked in the subjective experience of the individual with ataraxy as his goal - for the happy enlightened few. Lucretius, Roman that he was, had a more missionary, proselytizing, engineering approach, using fiery rhetoric as his instrument. But his social intension was concealed beneath his loyalty to his master.

So instead of foisting weird conundrums onto unprepared and unwilling objects - a kind of philosophical rape with little wisdom and less love - why not ask people if they have ever in their lives actually taken a real decision - life-changing, if not life-or-death? And then discussing it with them and comparing with the questioner's personal experience.

Ladmo said...

“When wondering whether to push someone on to a train line to prevent a greater loss of life further down the tracks, there are all sorts of considerations which we might take into account.” One very interesting consideration is how the law and law-abiding citizens will treat someone who tries to intervene in this fashion. Laws vary and I can only take time to represent the view of my locality (SW US). There is no defense before the law for such a homicide. Necessity, force majeure, etc have been tried and rejected. It is therefore a serious criminal act. Under laws known as “crime prevention statutes”, people attempting homicides become in effect outlaws and may be dealt with as outlaws. Private citizens have a right to use deadly force to stop them, law enforcement officers have a DUTY to stop them by any means.

I find it interesting that the law pronounces consequentalists criminals and outlaws, and creates a right or a duty to stop them by any means. Consequentialists in turn will no doubt try to pose as martyrs to their ethical faith. It strike me that we have a lesson here on intractible and sanguinary ethical factionalism ultimately becomes.