Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

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?

The end of freedom

It’s the final in my guest blogger’s series on Freedom.

We now come to the 6th & final instalment of the series on Freedom. There is obviously a lot of ground we haven’t been able to cover but if you’re still with me thank you for persevering. What I want to do is try and bring the series to a close by drawing lessons from the first five parts but also by giving you some further food for thought.

I hope you’ve seen that each of the areas we have looked at (musicartliteratureinternet) has its own problems with regard to freedom. However there will always be those who want more freedom than they have. What I’m about to say now may strike you as being a bit odd: total freedom equals total chaos! How so? Let’s look at a couple of examples from real life. Take the network of roads across whichever country you live in. Ask yourself what will happen if drivers have complete freedom? They can drive on whichever side of the road they want at whatever speed they want, they can ignore road signs and traffic lights particularly if they’re in a hurry and so on. What is the result? – Probably lots of accidents, no claims because everyone can do what they want so no-one is responsible, and therefore general mayhem. Roads & drivers, and indeed all road users (cyclists, pedestrians etc), need rules otherwise the system breaks down.

Now think of sports or athletics. In a game of football, baseball or whatever – what happens if you allow all the players to do whatever they want? What happens if runners on an athletics track can deliberately trip up other runners or ignore the lane they have been given to run in? – Once again chaos because there is no order to what is going on. Imagine watching a game or an athletics event with no rules! How long would you stay? Rules are needed for there to be a meaningful competition between opposing teams. It just doesn’t make sense to have no rules.

Try this one – Draw a circle or rectangle on a piece of paper. Put the point of your pen inside the line(s). Now move your pen wherever you want to within the boundary of the figure you drew. You can go wherever you want; you have complete freedom inside the lines, you could draw, sketch, paint, crayon or whatever. If I gave you a piece of canvas 77cm x 53cm (30in x 21in) what could you do? I would probably just have a mass of lines and colours not looking like much. (However, looking at some of the pictures in recent exhibitions featured in the news, I think I might have a chance!) Perhaps you would do better. Not many could produce a picture like the one of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo – (Mona Lisa, in case you were wondering.) Da Vinci, in the early 16th century, did. The painting had to have boundaries and within those boundaries he produced a fantastic piece of work.

Transfer these analogies to real life and let’s ask the question again. How can society function if everybody does whatever they want because they want the freedom to do that? They do not want you or me or some authority telling them what to do. They don’t want boundaries on their behaviour. Why should the idea of rules be any different for a society of human beings than for any other activity they engage in. We must have rules otherwise we and our society can’t function. The real problem arises when we try to specify what those rules are or should be. Who is going to make them up? Who is going to police them? And who is going to apprehend & prosecute those who do not obey them? In a democracy we give that responsibility to the elected government & its law enforcement agencies – they are the law makers and enforcers.

Do you think it’s best to live in a democracy because that gives the most or the fairest rights to those living under it? Most will agree it’s better than say a dictatorship. We tend to believe that democracy equals good, non-democracy equals “not as good” or even potentially bad. Would you consider the following example and seriously ask yourself if you still agree after reading it? Suppose you’re on a ship and the ship is sinking. The alarm goes out to “man the lifeboats” and the crew begins loading people in and lowering the boats into the water. Let’s say each boat is built for say 10 people and has emergency food rations for that number. Once the boat is launched and has been rowed or drifted away from the sinking ship you find that there are 11 people in the boat. The boat is unstable with 11 (6 one side, 5 on the other), it’s too low in the water and there are not enough rations to support 11. A vote is taken on who the people think should be thrown out of the boat. It’s democratic and it’s fair and YOU are picked. Are you still a big supporter of democracy? Or are you now frantically trying to state your case? – Why you should be kept in the boat and someone else, who in your estimation, is less worthy should be thrown out. Do you see the problem? Democracy is great until it’s you that has to leave or be sacrificed for the greater good. This is not a “balloon debate” – this is real life. What gives them the right to throw you out? Errr..Democracy actually!

Another quite serious example from the TV last Sunday – would you or your town/area want nuclear waste dumped underground there (in safe containers of course)? In the area of Cumbria, where the Sellafield Nuclear Plant is located, in a survey, 68% of people (just over two-thirds) agreed with the proposal to use their area. A democratic result but those who oppose it simply won’t accept that. In other words, in a democracy when a vote is taken, you want (and probably have) the right to object to it. So a democracy which produces a majority decision must allow those in the minority to oppose that decision which means a democracy may not produce a democratic outcome. Or at least only a democratic outcome in certain areas because some people don’t like the result of the democratic vote. Hmmm….

Bring it, literally, nearer home – suppose the people in your street decide they don’t like you and don’t want you living in their street. You have to move. What gives them the right to force you to move on? Democracy again. It’s not as easy as you thought is it?

This is not a new problem. Almost 2,400 years ago Plato was considering exactly the same sort of issues in his work The Republic. Philosophers and thinkers down the ages have wrestled with the same problem. Plato believed the best way for a just society to function was to divide everyone into one of the following groups: producers (those who literally make stuff: food, objects, etc), auxiliaries (warriors or upholders of rulers wishes and making producers obey) and guardians or philosopher kings (rulers). (Social mobility is not allowed; once you’re in one group or class you stay there because that is your function. Seems like a precursor of the caste system perhaps? Also with the restriction of medical care to certain classes we see a worryingly early form of eugenics. Not a freedom, I hope, any would espouse. You might be surprised at some of the supporters of “The First International Congress of Eugenics” in 1912 which included our own Prime Minister at the time!) When the three groups, in The Republic are in the right relationships with each other, and the people in them understand and perform their functions, everything will be fine. Interestingly, personal freedom isn’t considered important and is subject to the good of society which comes first. He also believes poets need to be banished from this proposed ideal society (Book X). If you want to know why and the answer to other questions you might have but don’t fancy reading the whole treatise there is an excellent summary on the Sparknotes Website at:

http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/republic/summary.html

So we can say quite clearly freedom has to have boundaries, has to have limits beyond which we cannot go. What that means is that you can do whatever you want within the boundaries – in a sport for example that’s where we can see the skill of a player. One person can do things another person can’t because they don’t have that ability. Look at footballers with their ball-controlling skills, watch them as they dribble around other players in a match because of their superior skill and applaud the goal or home run or whatever is achieved within the rules. A referee decides on penalties for those breaking the rules. The admiration comes from recognising their abilities working within the rules of whatever sport is involved. And so it is with society. It is just a fact that things will work better and people will feel safer if there are rules and people keep to them. Those who want to push the boundaries have a big problem – how far? And who says how far? And once one boundary is pushed are we then waiting for the next person to come along and push even further? Again, I have to ask, “but how far?” Each new level simply proves that people are never satisfied because they want always to push a little harder, to go one step further. (In the newspapers, a couple of days ago, we read of the fastest selling paperback since records began (beating Harry Potter & the DaVinci Code!). It is described as an explicit novel and last week alone sold over 100,000 copies. Another boundary pushed! I hope you can see the inevitable consequences of this pushing. They’re actually all around us in the state of our societies.

Plato had an idea that the values a society needs to live by could come from someone or somewhere outside the people living in that society. Now there’s a thought – what happens if we don’t really know best? Who’s going to admit that – musicians, artists, writers, bloggers? What happens if freedom really does exist only within the rules not outside of them?

That’s the end of our look at Freedom in various fields and in society as a whole. Whilst it has only been brief I do hope you’ve asked yourself some important questions and perhaps found some answers or at least the road to some. I’d like to finish with the proposition of Democritus who said that a life of contentment cannot be achieved through either idleness or pursuing worldly pleasures but only by being satisfied with what you have, giving little thought to envy or admiration. So there you have it – the freedom to be content! Or not? It’s up to you. More to it than you thought? Of course there is!

D is for…

DEFINITION!

Today, a guest blogger is going have a little look at some words he feels need closer examination…

CAN I HAVE A WORD? (Part 3)

“Nothing to breathe but air,
Quick as a flash ‘tis gone;
Nowhere to fall but off,
Nowhere to stand but on.” (Benjamin Franklin King, 1857-94)

Can I have a word? – Again? Yes it’s part 3. We’ve done authors using words we don’t know; we’ve done us trying to beef up our vocabularies; now we’re going to look at a difficult, some may say impossible, couple of words to define properly: nowhere & everywhere.

Have you heard people (often children or teenagers) answer the question, “Where do you think you’re going?” with that innocent sounding, “Nowhere”; someone asks you where you are and you say, for example, “in the middle of nowhere”. That’s a rather longer answer than a simple “I don’t know” which, it seems to me, does the same job. You could shorten it to ‘ITMON’ if you wanted to invent a new word (for something that doesn’t exist anyway?). Not sure that’ll catch on.

First, let’s investigate “Nowhere” and the whole concept of it. Let’s start by checking the dictionary: it means either ‘in or to no place, not anywhere’ or ‘out of the running’. It’s an adverb so you can’t actually go to nowhere or come from nowhere. It’s not a noun like a place name would be. What I want to know is how can you be ‘not anywhere’? In other words how can we define a place that doesn’t exist by using a concept that also doesn’t exist with words that actually don’t make sense? Now there’s the problem. Perhaps we are moving into the realms of philosophy here. However, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) pulls the rug from under our feet by giving us this quote: “Philosophy: a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing”. Not a great deal of help there then. Hmm…. Ok, so maybe philosophy isn’t the way to go.

Remember, though, it’s physically impossible to be nowhere because, when you think about it, there is always a latitude & longitude for wherever on the Earth’s surface you stand; if you’re underground (or under the sea) there is still a location simply with an added dimension of “X” no. of metres under the surface. The same is true if you’re above the ground even right to the top of Mount Everest except you don’t need the extra dimension because the latitude & longitude cross at the particular height where you are.

Therefore you must be somewhere! You might not be in an actual place that’s named on a map or even known locally by a particular name but you just can’t be nowhere. Also it’s important to remember nowhere is an adverb. That means Talking Heads got it wrong when they sang about being on the Road to nowhere (1985); Dusty Springfield got it wrong when she sang about being In the middle of nowhere (1965); and the Beatles got it wrong when they sang about a Nowhere man sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans, for nobody (1966); and perhaps the most confusing lines on the subject come from Jeff Beck in the opening lines of his song Hi-ho silver lining: “You’re everywhere and nowhere baby…” (1972). Now, just in case you were totally confused as to where that might be, Mr Beck helps us out by explaining that you’re (probably), “…..going down a bumpy hillside in a hippy hat.” Ah well, that’s a lot clearer then, eh?

So why do we use it? Is it to sound cool? Or to convey the idea that we are some kind of free spirit? Is it to emphasise the fact that you’re in a desolate place? – The middle of nowhere. Or is it because, really, we don’t understand what we’re saying? So why not stop using it or say it a different way. Go on you know you could. In the song Cotton Avenue, Joni Mitchell said it this way: “If you got no place special, well then you just go no place special”. Not nowhere just a “not special” other place.

I’ve tried looking for Erewhon but there’s nowhere so mixed up as that place!
However, I know what you’re thinking: will he be joining in after he’s heard those distinctive, foot-tapping, opening bars of the Jeff Beck song on the radio by singing along with “You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby, that’s where you’re at……….”? Course I will!
But hang on a minute…… I’ve just had a thought – where’s everywhere? How can anything, let alone a person, be everywhere? Is it all places……. except nowhere (or including nowhere)? And what about ITMON? Einstein gave us E=mc2; the Rambler has come up with E=E-N, (where E=everywhere, N=nowhere). Will it catch on? I doubt it but have a serious think about it!