Sunday, 4 November 2007

Trolley Problem

I was prompted to reflect on personal morality by this Sci-Phi post in the Philosphers' Magazine:
"Imagine that there are five hospital patients who urgently need organ transplants. If a healthy man walks in, should the doctors use his organs to save the other five, thus sacrificing the man’s life? For most people the instant response would be: no. Now imagine that a runaway trolley is about to plough into five workers standing on the track. There is a fork in the track, and throwing a switch could divert the train down the other line, where there is only one worker. The same question: should we sacrifice the one worker for the sake of the five? In this case, most people will again have an almost instant response: yes.
How is it that we are able to react so quickly and with such certainty to moral questions of this type? According to the psychologist Marc Hauser, it is because we are born with an innate moral faculty, analogous to our language faculty."
It's an interesting article, but ignoring that it rather throws into relief what I think is a fundamental conundrum I find in my own personal morality. These are variants on the 'Trolley Problem'.

I like to think that I follow a broadly utilitarian philosophy (with some modifications) but this little moral conundrum is the one that challenges that. Like most other people I reject the former choice, and accept the latter - but how do I justify that? Of course I can appeal to practical concerns* (I don't think as a matter of fact that it is likely that all five would survive the transplants, and even those that do will not survive for that long before rejection, and they may have survived a reasonable period without transplantation anyway, and, of course, we could just cannibalise one of the five to transplant to the others), but that is not engaging with the meat of the argument. I don't have an answer, and it is a little troubling.

*I think that this line of argument is more promising when considering a similar (and real) dilemma (often attributed to Peter Singer) about how much money we should give in charity to save lives.


potentilla said...

I wouldn't underestimate the importance of whether one can really (emotionally, subconsciously) believe in the terms of a thought experiment, as opposd to understanding them intellectually. I started wondering about this a propos of the various t.e.s about personal identity (you know, the variants of duplicating people and tele-matic machines and swapping brains (or, worse, brain information) over), but I think merits wider consideration. IMHO it is reasonably plausible that our reactions to t.e.s don't always genuinely take into account their terms.

pj said...

I'd forgotten about those ones - there's the distinction between gradual replacement and sudden replacement of the brain with silicon components that is supposed to probe our intuitions about personal identity and functionalism.

Political Scientist said...

Perhaps a philosophical basis to justify the instinctive reaction lies in strong rule vs. weak rule utilitarianism.
The weak rule utilitarian judges each situation on an 'ad hoc' basis, identifying the greater happiness/utility, and perform actions consistent with attaining that happiness/utility. This does not account for what will result for future fallout from the action - which is where strong rule utilitarianism comes in.

In the case of the “Transplant/Trolley Problem”, being faced with a healthy if unsuspecting man, it might be justified to break him down for spare parts. However, if we perform the action presumably other healthy people will take umbrage, possibly exacting vengeance on medical personnel, and certainly discouraging them from going anywhere near a hospital. This will damage future the future happiness: so although in this case it might be justified in the short term, it would cause sufficient damage to a greater number of people in the long term. This would render it unjustified.

Troublingly, utilitarianism by definition values utility: this means that Singer can consistently advocate post-natal abortion, on the grounds that the live of some infants are not worth living. He argues [Practical ethics,1979] that given the arbitrary – in his view – division between a foetus being alive and not-alive, it may as well be 28 days after birth as 6 months before. He also advocates using “unwanted” infants for transplants, provided they are less than 28 days old (Practical Ethics, 1979 and to an extent expanded in Should the baby live? 1995)

Another fruitful route is to distinguish between action and inaction. Although one might argue – Singer does argue - that there is no distinction, this does not accord with the way our lives are lived. Indeed, it does not accord with the way his life is lived: if eating in a fancy restaurant whilst children in the third world starve is equivalent to killing them, Singers failure to live in a hovel and send all his excess salary to feed them renders him, by his own logic, a murderer.
However, if we accept there is a distinction between being not aiding someone and killing them, the problem disappears owing to the lack of moral equivalence.

The question no utilitarian can answer – “what action, regardless of its’ utility, would you never perform?”. However, most normal people have “red lines” that they will not cross.

Sorry, I’ve wittered on a bit in this comment – hope at least some was of interest.

Rich said...

One perennial problem with utilitarianism is how to calculate utility -- in particular, what's in and out of scope.

In the transplant case it seems to me that everybody's utility is decreased if they live in fear of being kdnapped and harvested for organs. That could far outweigh the utility of the five people whose lives are saved.

Perhaps it's because of things like that that we have the idea of rights; each person has a right to keep his/her organs regardless of who needs them, since if they didn't then we'd have big trouble (speaking purely in terms of utility, of course).

I wonder, though, whether a "calculation" of utility (not that we usually put a number on it) is really any more than a way of justifying our ethical intuitions, at least in cases like these...