Trolleyology

I’m handing over to my guest blogger today for a bit of philosophy. Enjoy!

Today’s subject is in the area of philosophy but please don’t switch off. It will be, as you will see, very personal & very practical. What follows will I think challenge you to take stock of what you really believe about right & wrong. This particular area of philosophy has become known as something called “The Trolley Problem”.

Although the problem is as old as the human race this particular way of representing it is fairly recent & only goes back to 1967. It is defined as “a thought experiment in ethics” (Wikipedia). It is called “Trolley-ology” (I kid you not). Never heard of it? Let me explain. There are many situations we all meet in our day-to-day lives which are dangerous: crossing the road, driving, getting on/off buses or trains and for some people even swimming! However if I was to start by asking you if there are any circumstances under which you would take a decision resulting in the death of another person you would probably say normally ‘no’ but ‘yes’ only in very special situations – maybe in self-defence or in war. What I want you to consider is some situations that have to have an action taken which will unfortunately result in death. That can’t be avoided but it is how we make the decision which is important. We will look at a few imaginary scenarios, in order to do this, but with very direct applications to real life.

You may not think what comes next has any bearing on reality but I assure you it does and with situations which have to have a decision made. In other words you can’t choose to do nothing because people will still die if you do nothing. You can’t do nothing just because you don’t like what is going to happen or because you say, well, it will never be me who has to make that decision so I don’t need to bother.

Have a think on the following and see what you come up with.

Scenario 1: Suppose you are standing by a railway track and an out-of-control train (called a ‘trolley’ in the terminology of this field of study) is hurtling along. It is going to hit and kill 5 railway workers who are doing some work further down the track. You notice you are standing by a lever which operates the “points” at a junction on the track before the place where the men are working. If you pull the lever you can divert the train along another track where there is only one person working who would be killed. What would you do? Easy isn’t it? You divert the train (trolley) and only 1 person is killed so in the final settlement 5 out of 6 people are still alive. Job done. Feel comfortable? Probably, although obviously you still regret the one person dying. However their life lost has resulted in 5 being saved. Still good?

This type of situation is faced in various guises in real life but let me use an example from WW2. When the German military were sending rockets over to attack London the British found they were falling short of their target (London) and landing in the Kent countryside. The government took a decision to feed info back, via double agents and false reports, that targets in London had actually been hit. This would cause the Germans to send more rockets to similar positions but with the risk now that towns and villages in Kent could be hit and innocent people would die. It was a strategic decision and had to be taken in order to preserve the organisations dealing with the war effort in London itself. Ok for London? –Yes; not OK if you live in the Kent countryside where the rockets are exploding. Winston Churchill had to make that decision and he did – he fed the false info back and the bombs dropped in the Kent area, in some cases, hitting residential areas.

However consider a variation on Scenario 1 – what happens if I tell you that the 5 workers were all in their 60s nearing retirement and the one worker on the other track was just 18 yrs old. Would make the same decision now? On what basis would you either keep to your original decision or change it? Not so easy now, eh?

Scenario 2: You are standing on a footbridge over the railway. The same train (trolley) is hurtling out of control down the track. This time though there are no points nearby. However next to you on the footbridge is an obese gentleman. His bulk, if you pushed him off the bridge onto the track, would be enough to slow the train sufficiently for it not to reach the 5 workers. You know the question now don’t you? Would you push him off the bridge to save those 5? Well would you? Now it’s a lot harder because instead of just pushing a lever you actually have to push another human being to their death. More issues are raised, I think, because of the physical contact which now involves you in committing a criminal act to save the 5 people whereas pushing a lever didn’t seem to.

If you’re interested, in surveys done on this subject, most people answer Scenario 1 with a ‘yes’ but Scenario 2 with a ‘no’.

Scenario 3: You are a GP Doctor and one day a homeless man comes into your surgery. After speaking to him and examining him you find he just has some minor medical problem causing him the pains he’s complaining about. However you know you also have 5 patients who are all awaiting an organ transplant – each one a different organ. All of this man’s organs are healthy and intact. By killing him you could give life to 5 of your patients. Seems easy doesn’t it? A quick injection and it’s all over; he has no known relatives, no-one apparently will miss him or complain if he dies – 1 life taken and 5 saved. What would you do? Does the age of the homeless man matter – whether he is 18 or 70? Does it make a difference if among the 5 some may possibly be old or even terminally ill but would gain an extra 5 or more years of life with the transplant? Suppose, on the other hand, the homeless man is terminally ill (but the required organs are still ok to use)? Would you change your mind now?

To bring this one into the real world – a situation faced on-goingly by hospitals across the world: how do you allocate the money you have available and to which patients? A recent radio prog highlighted the difficulty. One hospital said they had a lady who required life-saving treatment which would cost £20,000 and her family, naturally, were pressing for that op to be done to save their relative. However the hospital also had 100 patients who would have their situations (not life-threatening) improved by a course of treatment costing £200 each. At this point, the hospital had only £20,000 to spend – so they could treat either the 1 or the 100. What would you do?

I hope you can see these scenarios are not really about runaway trains (trolleys) or imaginary doctor’s surgeries. They are about real life and a finite supply of money which cannot treat everybody. On what basis do we make decisions which have to be made and yet sadly involve the death of at least one person. They are about ethics and how we determine the rules we will live by. Is it more important for the individual to be granted his/her wishes for a longer life or that society takes a view on how to benefit the greatest number of people with the resources (financial & material) it has available?

There are a number of other scenarios in this field and I hope to look at a few more next week. For the moment ask yourself the question – what would you do if faced with the real life versions of these imaginary scenarios. What variations of the situations would make you think again? Definitely tough, isn’t it?

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Wow, what a thought provoking post. I have to say no to all. In scenario 1, there is no way I’d be thinking straight enough to do any of that! I’d just cover my eyes and scream. 2 and 3 are just harming innocent people. Good post though! X

    Reply

  2. Interesting and thought-provoking yes! I have no idea what I will do, killing one person or five…it all amounts to guilt… I hope am never stuck in such situations ever!

    Reply

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