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Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

Enter here to explore ethical issues and discuss the meaning and source of morality.
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animist
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#21 Postby animist » December 2nd, 2010, 7:13 pm

Latest post of the previous page:

Emma Woolgatherer wrote:
animist wrote:Now, switching is not itself a problem; the reason why the one man (tempting to call him the fat man) had one to himself was maybe that he was rich enough (but please don't make that relevant either, as this is not about personal characteristics but simply numbers). What would you do?
But it isn't just about numbers, is it? It's about people. And people do have personal characteristics. If we make it purely about numbers then surely we're accepting the utilitarian premise. And we might not want to do that.

Emma

well, I do!

philbo
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#22 Postby philbo » December 2nd, 2010, 7:33 pm

animist wrote:
Emma Woolgatherer wrote:
animist wrote:Now, switching is not itself a problem; the reason why the one man (tempting to call him the fat man) had one to himself was maybe that he was rich enough (but please don't make that relevant either, as this is not about personal characteristics but simply numbers). What would you do?
But it isn't just about numbers, is it? It's about people. And people do have personal characteristics. If we make it purely about numbers then surely we're accepting the utilitarian premise. And we might not want to do that.

Emma

well, I do!

How would you feel about one (perfectly healthy) person being killed so that their organs could be used to save half-a-dozen lives?

If it's purely a numbers game, that's a good thing, right?

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animist
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#23 Postby animist » December 2nd, 2010, 8:17 pm

Philbo wrote:How would you feel about one (perfectly healthy) person being killed so that their organs could be used to save half-a-dozen lives?

If it's purely a numbers game, that's a good thing, right?
you've got me there, maybe you have read this as part of the Dawkins passage? Anyway, it is discussed in the Peter Cave book "Can a Robot be a Human?" This scenario is a stage beyond the fat man, I suppose. Anyway, to explain this to those who may not have come across it, a surgeon in this position would be committing murder in the hope of saving patients with life-threatening diseases - that is the scenario. I can't and won't hide behind the answer that, while the the healthy person will certainly die, it is uncertain whether the diseased people will live as a result of receiving his/her organs because I was telling you previously to ignore issues of uncertainty. No, I would not think in normal circumstances it was justified, so I suppose this does not make me a fully fledged utilitarian. Why this seems beyond the pale I don't know; probably it relates to the fact that the other scenarios involved exceptional circumstances, whereas this scenario implies a culture of harvesting organs which is way outside our moral norms; and so perhaps the distinction between rule and act utilitarianism is relevant here. We (including me) do not want such a society, and so cannot justify an instance of it, as here. In the trolley/life support or even fat man scenarios, their emergency nature means that rule-utilitarianism is not relevant: you cannot make a rule for every eventuality. Having said that our society does not condone harvesting of organs in the way presented, I should point out that this obviously refers to the donor being a "full" person, not a foetus or embryo; we seem to be prepared to harvest embryos for the benefit of others, don't we?

thundril
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#24 Postby thundril » December 4th, 2010, 4:29 pm

animist wrote:
thundril wrote:
philbo wrote:If you're driving, and see a group of five people blocking one lane and a single person in the other... I'd guess that most people would aim for the single person - is that the same thing (other than wanting to minimize damage to the car, of course ;) )?


I would probably try to stop, or run the car's side along a wall or something, failing which I would probably hit the single person. But this is merely a continuing and unplanned struggle to hurt 'as few people as possible.' Whilst this might be seen as a commendable human instinctual response, I don't see how it fit into 'ethics'.

My take on questions of the trolleyology type is this: that thought experiments in physics, however far-fetched, can be valid, but only under very strict rules, relating to current theories about the laws of physics. These laws are assumed to exist objectively, even though we might not know what they are exactly. Moral values cannot exist outside the human mind, and have, in that sense, no 'objective' qualities at all.
Absurd Hollywood dilemmas about hurtling trolleys and exploding powerplants are one thing: the desperately difficult problems of battlefield hospital triage are quite another.


your first paragraph - yes, that is what I was saying to Philbo. Your second paragraph - well, it is an ethics thought experiment, not a physics one.


Yes, the distinction I make between 'thought experiments' in physics and this kind of 'ethical dilemma' is just this: the thought experiments conducted by Einstein et al are considered valid if and only if they adhere to whatever theories are assumed to best describe the objectively existing laws of physics. Thus they can help to test theories which, for reasons of physical constraints, cannot be tested otherwise. They are based on pre-agreed mathematical models, and if the sums add up, that tells you nothing much, but if the sums don't add up, the theory is probably wrong.
Compare the rigour of this method with the presented ethical dilemmas, which I characterise as absurd Hollywood dilemmas precisely because they have no relevance to anything which can be considered as pertaining to the real world.

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#25 Postby Wilson » December 15th, 2010, 10:36 pm

I think most of us are indeed utilitarians, in some form. And that's because we evolved that way; it's not because we read a book by Mill or Benthem but because we empathize with others and feel a certain duty to the community. Faced with a trolley situation, most of us would want to save those five people and most of us would not want to kill the other person, but you can't have both; a decision - to do something or to do nothing - must be made. As unpleasant as it may be, your decision will result in either one killed or five killed.

Someone asked whether it would make any difference whether it was a fat uncle who would have to die to save the five. What if it were your son or wife or husband? What if it was you yourself on the chopping block? I suppose that a strict utilitarian would say that all lives are equal, so the moral decision would be the same regardless of kinship. But nobody is going to sacrifice his daughter to save five strangers, and very few people would sacrifice themselves to save five strangers. Maybe by utilitarianism theory the moral implications are the same, but most of us go through a series of subconscious calculations where the individuals at risk are weighted according to their value to you - you and your immediate family are rated much higher, strangers are intermediate, and people known to be despicable - child molesters, animal torturers, Bernie Maddoff, serial killers - are rated as almost worthless (by me, anyway) - plus you take into consideration the effect your decision will have on you later on emotionally and perhaps legally - and you end up with a decision as to what course of action to take. Obviously not an exact science, and besides, I (and probably most of you) don't believe in absolute morality, anyway.

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#26 Postby Wilson » December 15th, 2010, 10:43 pm

Further complications:

What if the trolley were heading toward your son or daughter (or you), and you could flip a switch to divert the trolley and save your child but kill five strangers?

What if the trolley were heading toward five strangers, and you could flip a switch to divert the trolley to your line, resulting in your death? I wouldn't. Now what if there were 100 strangers, or 1000 in harm's way? What if there were 1 million souls at risk - would you give up your life to save them?

There's not always a neat and tidy moral option available.

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#27 Postby animist » December 16th, 2010, 9:15 am

Wilson wrote:Further complications:

What if the trolley were heading toward your son or daughter (or you), and you could flip a switch to divert the trolley and save your child but kill five strangers?

What if the trolley were heading toward five strangers, and you could flip a switch to divert the trolley to your line, resulting in your death? I wouldn't. Now what if there were 100 strangers, or 1000 in harm's way? What if there were 1 million souls at risk - would you give up your life to save them?

There's not always a neat and tidy moral option available.

glad you have mentioned these, and I think they do show the confused nature of how we judge actions. In your first scenario, by actively sacrificing others to save yourself or your family, you might well be up for murder, and certainly would be judged to have acted wrongly; it is because you actively intervened in a selfish way. In the reverse scenario you would be judged a hero and given some posthumous award as a true utilitarian - especially if the numbers involved were large; and if there were millions and millions at risk, you would I think be expected to sacrifice yourself!

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#28 Postby animist » December 16th, 2010, 8:24 pm

Emma Woolgatherer wrote:
animist wrote:I don't see that this is relevant. This is an ethical dilemma, not a realistic question about one's own impartiality - ie, the question is not whether you actually would do what seems to be the morally correct thing but whether the morally right thing is to push or not to push.
Well, at one point you did ask the question, "What would you do?" And since I'm a moral sceptic who doesn't think there are any objective moral values, that is perhaps a more meaningful and interesting question for me.
do not quite agree on that. You need not be a moral objectivist (it seems that most people on the forum are not) to have moral opinions, and you obviously do. The question is: what do you feel is "right" (or rather, the morally best available option)? - and you need not have a belief about the nature of moral judgments to make that sort of a decision.
Emma Woolgatherer wrote:Anyway, although I'm inclined to think that there isn't a morally right response to either problem, my feelings about the two are different. I think that if I knew of someone who had been in the first situation and had thrown the switch, resulting in the single person on the siding being killed and the five on the main track surviving, I would not feel disapproving of or uncomfortable about that person. But neither would I feel disapproving of or uncomfortable about a person who did not throw the switch.
again, I don't think it is about condemning anyone for the "wrong" decision in awful circumstances
Emma Woolgatherer wrote:But if I knew of someone who had pushed a fat man off a bridge, resulting in his death and the five people on the track being saved, then I'd ... I'd probably look at him or her a little differently. I would wonder what sort of person could make that sort of decision.
well, given that he would legally be a murderer, I imagine, if his calculations proved wrong, it certainly would be a special type of person!
Emma Woolgatherer wrote:
animist wrote:ok, my alternative "do nothing or do something?" dilemma.....
Yes. It is more realistic. But it's different, because we're talking about removing an artificial means of keeping someone alive, rather than allowing someone to be killed. And that's much easier to do. Doctors do it all the time!
do they? I am not querying what you say, and this is the sort of factual feedback (triage etc?) that I wanted. I think perhaps this is an important distinction, and that my "alternative" maybe is not a real one, as you say, but a different situation. The idea of "moral claim" seems to be popping in here (and of course is decidedly non-utilitarian). What you seem to mean is that these patients do not have much of a "claim" on the doctor since they owe their continued existences to him, whereas, in contrast, the fat man has a very strong claim to be left alone by you, and the one person (in the siding) who would survive if you don't throw the switch has a somewhat weaker claim on you to let things be. I don't know whether this idea has been tested empirically, ie whether other people would feel like you - Philbo did not mention this, for instance, and it did not occur to me till you mentioned it. (But what if the one patient had paid extra money for the supposed security of a separate power supply - would this give him an additional claim beyond the others?)
Emma Woolgatherer wrote:What I'm trying to say is that I do think the idea that it's better to save more lives than fewer lives is a powerful one. I'm just not convinced that it's a moral imperative.
I think by using words like "imperative" you make it harder to keep the discussion in moral terms (or, maybe, you make it easier to escape moral terms); surely the question is about what is morally the better/best decision in difficult circumstances.

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#29 Postby animist » December 18th, 2010, 8:58 am

I have now read the article on this topic in "Prospect", as supplied by Emma - and you MUST watch the hilariously naff video of the trolley problem! Whether it interests or infuriates you, trolleyology is apparently a flourishing study area (there must be a better name for it? eg descriptive ethics?). The central notion does seem to be collateral damage (or as they call it, double effect - an idea that goes back to Aquinas and his doctrine that a just war inevitably kills innocent people). I hope this is not just my anti-Americanism rearing its ugly(?) head, but the bit that struck me most was the claim by Westpoint students that, while they might kill civilians in collateral damage (eg as a result of an attack on a military base), they would never intentionally do so, and that this distinguished them from Al-Qaeda. Very convenient, since it allows any amount of "collateral damage" to be excused (using trolleyology?). In fact this seems simply wrong: enemy civilians work in factories which produce not only armaments but everything else which supports a wartime enemy, so that these factories are "legitimate" targets, and the notion of collateral damage is becoming very weak, especially since killing skilled civilians as well as destroying physical plant are joint effects of bombing factories, and therefore jointly useful. This refinforces my belief that open utilitarianism is at least a more honest position in such issues. Apparently, Marc Hauser has been removed from his position of chief trolleyology investigator for some reason connected with "scientific misconduct" - I wonder if he has actually tried to arrange for a fat man to be pushed from this famous railway bridge?

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#30 Postby Wilson » December 18th, 2010, 8:43 pm

Animist, what are your views on World War Two, from the standpoint of the Allied powers? Were they justified in bombing sites in Germany, where there would certainly be civilians killed? It's hard to see how Nazi Germany could have been defeated without a lot of "collateral damage".

Another scenario, although I'm not sure you like hypothetical situations much: Say that you knew in 1943 with 99% certainty that Hitler was in a village of 100 civilians, and you had a missle that could be sent to destroy all the inhabitants in that village. Would you do it? If so, then say that there was only a 60% likelihood that he was there, and the village contained 1000 civilians? Would you still do it?

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#31 Postby animist » December 18th, 2010, 10:13 pm

Wilson wrote:Animist, what are your views on World War Two, from the standpoint of the Allied powers? Were they justified in bombing sites in Germany, where there would certainly be civilians killed? It's hard to see how Nazi Germany could have been defeated without a lot of "collateral damage".

Another scenario, although I'm not sure you like hypothetical situations much: Say that you knew in 1943 with 99% certainty that Hitler was in a village of 100 civilians, and you had a missle that could be sent to destroy all the inhabitants in that village. Would you do it? If so, then say that there was only a 60% likelihood that he was there, and the village contained 1000 civilians? Would you still do it?

World War 2 seems to have been a just war if there ever was one, so the two questions about Hitler would have to be a Yes, assuming that the villagers were Germans - if they were in occupied territories it might a bit harder but probably the answer would be still be yes. The more general question about collateral damage in that war - yes, of course it was unavoidable. Two exceptions would be the US atom bombs on Japan, and the fire bombing of Dresden: the latter seems to have been state terrorism worthy of the Nazis, while the former may have been an attempt to intimidate the Russians (strictly though, I suppose they therefore were not about collateral damage, the killing was done for its own sake). It is not the fact of causing such "collateral damage" that is necessarily wrong IMO but its dishonesty; the phrase was even used by the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh when he sacrificed civilians in his war against the FBI. And when the Americans bomb wedding parties in Afghanistan on the pretext of believing that Taliban or al Qaeda members might be around, the phrase sounds pretty sick.

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#32 Postby Wilson » December 18th, 2010, 10:33 pm

I guess the general rule should be that whoever makes those decisions should think in some depth about whether the perceived benefit of the action is greater than the potential harm to innocent civilians. And that person should ideally be someone with the capacity for empathy - someone who recognizes the enemy - even civilians - as real people. Of course there's no way to ensure that except to consider character and not just technical capability in promoting people to positions of authority.

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#33 Postby Alan C. » December 29th, 2010, 6:54 pm

Off topic? Maybe but I thought this was a good work around :)

You are driving along in your car on a wild, stormy night. You pass by a bus stop, and you see three people waiting for the bus:

1. An old lady who looks as if she is about to die.
2. An old friend who once saved your life.
3. The perfect man (or) woman you have been dreaming about.

Which one would you choose to offer a ride to, knowing that there could only be one passenger in your car?

Think before you continue reading. This is a moral/ethical dilemma that was once actually used as part of a job application.

You could pick up the old lady, because she is going to die, and thus you should save her first; or you could take the old friend because he once saved your life, and this would be the perfect chance to pay him back. However, you may never be able to find your perfect dream lover again.

The candidate who was hired (out of 200 applicants) had no trouble coming up with his answer.

Spoiler:
He simply answered: "I would give the car keys to my old friend, and let him take the lady to the hospital. I would stay behind and wait for the bus with the woman of my dreams."

Never forget to "Think Outside of the Box."
Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers.

thundril
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#34 Postby thundril » December 30th, 2010, 8:13 pm

I came up with exactly the same solution! Does this mean I'm smart, or just practical?

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#35 Postby liquidsteam » April 12th, 2011, 2:20 pm

There is some good coverage of Trolleyology by Michael Sander on Harvard Justice:

http://www.justiceharvard.org/

He compares consequential (utilitarian) thinking with categorical (absolute right/wrong) thinking. What I find funny about this debate, is how often someone states categorically that they are utilitarian in their thinking. To say that consequential thinking is right is clearly contradictory. Instead, a utilitarian would understand the benefits and limitations of both the consequential and categorical methods of reasoning, and thus would not define himself/herself to be just utilitarian.

One way of reasoning the Trolleyology scenario would be to say that the widespread fear of being sacrificed just because you were a little overweight and standing on a bridge would outweigh the benefits of saving a few lives, whereas people can understand that, and foresee the potential risk of being a worker on a railway line (consent). Utilitarianism relies on knowing the consequences of an action, and that in real world situations these actions have consequences far beyond the immediate situation, it is practically impossible to know fully the outcome. While this is a limitation of utilitarianism, simplifying your thinking and, using the categorical approach does not simplify the problem. What the categorical approach does allow is very quick decision making, it also provides a level of abstraction, the common features of what utilitarianism might provide as good solutions, and that is, a sense of what is right.

Whether the categorical or consequential approach will give the most favourable outcome depends upon the available information and the amount of time with which to reason, with abundance of both of these factors, an optimum solution could be reached by using categorical reasoning as a check of consequential determination to help highlight any vital calculations which may have been omitted. Examples of corporations trying to place a $ value on human life, show how readily utilitarianism can be misused if categorical reasoning is not used alongside it.

Trolleyology can be understood by acknowledging that we are imperfect beings in an imperfect world and that we just have to live with the conseqences of our actions, known and unknown, and by recognising the difference between the questions:

Which is right, categorical or consequential reasoning?
What are the benefits and drawbacks of categorical and consequential reasoning?

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#36 Postby Wilson » April 12th, 2011, 11:11 pm

Thanks for that link, liquidstream. I watched the first hour and will spend some time with other lessons as well.

I like trolleyology. It forces us to think about the rules under which our sense of morality works. The truth is that each of us reacts to the situations presented in an instinctive way. We have an innate sense of right and wrong and once we've expressed what we would do in those cases, we then try to explain to ourselves and others why we felt that way. Those moral instincts have developed over time in each of us, and it seems to me that the two components of individual moral sense are empathy and rules. For those of us who are strongly empathetic, empathy is the principal guiding force; those who are not particularly empathetic often rely on the rules set down by religion, government, or even one's family or oneself. But our individual moral codes are almost always a combination of both.

It seems obvious to me that there is no absolute morality, and many participants here agree. So when people in the audience argue for one action or the other as the moral choice, they need to realize that they are speaking about right and wrong from their own perspective, and that there is no absolute right and no absolute wrong answer that everybody would ever agree on.

Regarding consequentialism/utilitarianism vs categorialism (if that's a word), I guess I'm mostly a utilitarian - greatest good, etc. One thing I'm sure of is that hard categorialism is wrong, from my perspective. Kant was asked if lying could be morally good if, for example, it would save the lives of Jews during WWII. He initially said telling the truth was always the right course. Wrong answer, per my moral sense. I think that most of us do a sort of math (happiness vs pain for the greatest number) when asked if a particular act is morally good. If we are asked to envision causing pain or death to protect the greater number, however, other factors come into play - yuckiness, nightmares, guilt, legal complications. In my opinion pushing the fat guy to save five workers is the morally proper action, but I don't think I could do it.

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#37 Postby animist » April 13th, 2011, 9:40 am

Wilson wrote:Regarding consequentialism/utilitarianism vs categorialism (if that's a word), I guess I'm mostly a utilitarian - greatest good, etc. One thing I'm sure of is that hard categorialism is wrong, from my perspective. Kant was asked if lying could be morally good if, for example, it would save the lives of Jews during WWII. He initially said telling the truth was always the right course. Wrong answer, per my moral sense. I think that most of us do a sort of math (happiness vs pain for the greatest number) when asked if a particular act is morally good. If we are asked to envision causing pain or death to protect the greater number, however, other factors come into play - yuckiness, nightmares, guilt, legal complications. In my opinion pushing the fat guy to save five workers is the morally proper action, but I don't think I could do it.

I agree with most of your ideas, and of course the trouble with utilitarianism is the uncertainty of the effects of what you might do with good intentions. "Categorialism" I assume refers to Kant's categorical imperative (which is bit like the Golden Rule), but I think of "deontology" and "intrinsicalism" as words which are the opposite of consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is a form). Yes, Kant was pretty rigid on things like lying - obviously he was not still around in WW2 but I wonder what he would have said about telling the truth to Nazis!

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#38 Postby Wilson » April 13th, 2011, 7:04 pm

I have to admit that when I tried reading Kant, I got bogged down after the first paragraph or so and was literally unable to slog my way through even one full chapter. It may be that the ideas were just too subtle for my limited brainpower but natually my inclination was to believe that the fault was his, not mine, and maybe in the prose rather than in the ideas. Even reading summaries and interpretations of his principles didn't give me much of an understanding of what he was getting at. One of his concepts that doesn't ring true for me is that we shouldn't consider consequences in deciding upon an action, since we can't always predict how things will turn out - because often we can predict correctly. In relation to my comment above that our individual moral systems are composed of empathy and rules, Kant falls squarely in the rules camp. And since I don't believe in absolute morality, I can't go along with Kant's concept that moral rules should be determined by pure reason. Morality is largely emotional, in my opinion, and is at least partly driven by tendencies given us by evolution.

Any help you all can give me toward understanding this dude would be appreciated.

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#39 Postby Alan H » April 14th, 2011, 2:01 pm

Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins were in Oxford a few days ago and Harris discussed Trolleyism. The whole event can be listened to on the fantastic Pod Delusion podcast here.
Alan Henness

There are three fundamental questions for anyone advocating Brexit:

1. What, precisely, are the significant and tangible benefits of leaving the EU?
2. What damage to the UK and its citizens is an acceptable price to pay for those benefits?
3. Which ruling of the ECJ is most persuasive of the need to leave its jurisdiction?

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#40 Postby animist » April 14th, 2011, 5:03 pm

thanks, Alan, have just listened to it. The great Sam Harris covers free will (disbelieves in it), utilitarianism (roughly agrees with it), moral truths (says there can some, relating this to science) and the fat man (who I now think should be pushed using a lever!), plus much more! Definitely a good listen

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#41 Postby Alan H » April 14th, 2011, 6:38 pm

James O'Malley (the guy behind the Pod Delusion) has just interviewed Sam Harris - I expect it'll be in tomorrow's edition of the Pod Delusion.
Alan Henness

There are three fundamental questions for anyone advocating Brexit:

1. What, precisely, are the significant and tangible benefits of leaving the EU?
2. What damage to the UK and its citizens is an acceptable price to pay for those benefits?
3. Which ruling of the ECJ is most persuasive of the need to leave its jurisdiction?


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