Day 860: Ethically Steering The Hypothetical Death-Trolley

originally published May 9, 2014

Today I’d like to talk to you about math.

Not “math” in the numbery, equationy, algebra-y way, but an ethical sort of math. Every time we find ourselves staring down the barrel of a moral conundrum, a little light flickers in our brain’s mathematical wing, weighing the heft of the pros against the heft of the cons. But is simplifying a dilemma into quantifiable terms really the best way to assess the situation?

Probably not. Each scenario has its own circumstances and personality, but that should never prevent us from making sweeping, knee-jerk generalizations – not to mention some judgy finger-wagging – to tell one another what we ‘should’ do. If ethics boiled down to nothing but math then the most soulless and sociopathic among us would have the easiest time at life. The heart always has its say.

But without the math, the heart would be the only one steering our moral ship and we’d never get anything done. No hypothetical ethical tightrope exemplifies this quite as well as the Trolley Problem. At least none that I found today, from the moment I decided not to write about the history of the mechanical pencil and instead opted to write about this.

The Trolley Problem starts out like this: there’s an out-of-control trolley racing down the tracks. No one knows why, maybe Daniel Tiger just decided he was fed the fuck up with King Friday’s tyrannical taxation and someone needed to pay – it’s not important. Five people are tied to the tracks and cannot escape the trolley’s path. They are facing certain death. Except you notice a switch within your reach. If you pull it, the trolley will get diverted down another track, where only one person will die. Do you do it?

Chances are, the math part of your brain called this right away. Five people dying is worse than one person dying so you flip the switch, right? Well, if it were that simple I’d be telling you all about Sampson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins’ English patent for a lead-propelled refillable pencil in 1822. No, this gets a little trickier. Let’s introduce a fat guy into the equation.

Judith Jarvis Thomson, a lady who has actually made money from a philosophy degree in the last century, came up with this variation. Now there’s no switch to save those five people, just a fat guy on a bridge. If you shove the fat guy over the rail and onto the tracks (we’re just assuming you have the core strength to do so), the trolley will derail and the five innocents will be saved. The math is the same, but now you’ve got to physically heave a human with your bare hands to his shrieking demise. The lines are starting to blur a little.

Surveys on this differentiation have been done (which thankfully saves me the time), and there is always a significant number of respondents who find no real issue with the first problem but could not bring themselves to act in the second. Maybe there’s the fear of the fat guy exploding like that toxic waste dude at the end of Robocop and not stopping the trolley at all (giving you a death count of six and making you look like a real asshole), but this isn’t reality – it’s a thought experiment. We have to assume the fat guy does the trick and deters the danger to the others. So what the hell is the moral difference between the two problems?

One conclusion is that the action in the first problem has the one person dying as a side effect of you flipping the switch. It’s not flat-out murder, like shoving  person in front of a train is it? This leads us into the thigh-deep muck of the doctrine of double effect, which states that one can take an action that has bad side effects, but deliberately harming a person – even to create a positive outcome – is wrong.

But what if the fat guy was responsible for this entire situation? Let’s assume Snidely Whiplash put on a few pounds and then maliciously tied the five people in his Overeaters Anonymous support group to the tracks because they weren’t there for him that night he overdosed on powdered donuts. Now you’re letting justice and a moral imperative enter the discussion. People might be more likely to make the shove in this instance, though if one deems the wrongness of murder to be an absolute, they still might not kill the fat guy and save the others.

Some say a variant of the Trolley Problem is the ol’ Ticking Time Bomb Scenario. In this case we are leaving the relatively placid waters of the binary life/death world and plunging into the ugly froth of torture. If you have a time bomb set to go off – and here we could be talking about a shoebox bomb that will kill one lonely night watchman or we could mean a big atomic kablooie, it doesn’t matter – and you can potentially torture the suspect you have in custody to unearth the details you need to stop it, is it right to do so?

This is about as polarizing a discussion as you’ll find this side of Roe vs. Wade. I have friends who insist that torture under any circumstances is barbaric and evil, and others who believe such circumstances dictate its necessity. The prominent defence attorney (and outspoken liberal) Alan Dershowitz, whom I would have figured would land on the side of non-torture, actually believes that it can occasionally be appropriate. He would advocate for a warrant system, and for the torturers to be held accountable if they go too far or if they have the wrong guy, but let’s be honest – if there’s a nuke in Midtown, there aren’t a lot of people who would turn up their noses at the authorities getting their hands a little dirty to stop it.

To wit (and to keep this topical), let’s look at everyone’s favorite torturer.

I don’t like to quote the Parents Television Council (fuck censorship and fuck those people), but they claim that Jack Bauer has utilized torture to extract information from bad guys on average 12 times per “day” in the Fox series 24. One of the show’s creators has said that the ticking time bomb scenario hardly ever occurs in the actual world, however Michael Chertoff, the head of Homeland Security during the Bush administration, insists the show ‘reflects real life’. I’m not sure who to believe here, but I’m inclined toward the former. Maybe that’s just my inner optimist talking.

Joe Navarro, a high-ranked FBI expert on interrogation, told the New Yorker that “only a psychopath” can torture a person and not be seriously affected by it. “You don’t want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy and tend to have grotesque other problems.” That’s where the math falls apart and the humanity has to take over.

But still, when the moment appears and the time for thinking has been usurped by the need to act (or not act), whether it’s flipping a train switch, shoving a fat guy off a bridge or shattering a suspected terrorist’s kneecaps with a wrench, which will win? The math or the heart?

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