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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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Alan H
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

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

Latest post of the previous page:

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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animist
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#42 Postby animist » September 21st, 2011, 8:47 pm

http://www.philosophynow.org/issue86/Ho ... r_Trolleys

downloading this article from Philosophy Now; I have not quite read it yet

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animist
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#43 Postby animist » September 25th, 2011, 7:56 pm

this article covers a lot of points covered already in this thread, such as the matter of collateral damage (or double effect), but it introduces a lot of Kantian philosophical baggage about people being ends in themselves. First of all, then, I would like to consign that great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, to the dunghill on this issue at least; Kant also thought that animal suffering did not matter as such - what a Kunt. And how could any sane person work out an ethical theory which required us never to tell lies under any circumstance? I wish Phil Badger had been more dismissive of Kant: there were no Nazis around in his (IK's) time, but there were plenty of criminals - and foreign enemies, I imagine; and, I wonder, did he practise what he preached? Kant's ideas simply make no sense, for however would they be applied? The Golden Rule is hard enough to apply TBH, and apparently Kant's obsession with autonomy means that his categorical imperative is not after all the same as the Golden Rule, so what is the practicality in IK's "Critique of Practical Reason"?

Getting onto the the trolley scenarios themselves, there are a couple of points on which I disagree with PB. I do think that the distinction between commission and omission is important, even though from a utilitarian standpoint there is no significance between doing something wrong and failing to try to stop something wrong happening. I think that the trolley experiments prove this amply from the criterion of what I call descriptive ethics: I am pretty sure that most people would agree with me that one's failure to plunge into a river to save someone from drowning (if one is a strong swimmer) is condemnable, but it is not nearly as condemnable as pushing the person into the river in the first place (and er - what about motives? You can have a motive for doing something, but can you have a motive for not doing something?) PB's
counter-example is the doctor whose brief is to make the patient's life as good as possible; he says that omitting to provide feed and drink might cause more suffering than actively killing, and thence that active killing is more merciful than active killing. I would not disagree with this, but I think the point that PB misses is that that the clinician is a specialist who is specifically charged with care of a particular person, his terminally ill patient, and knows the effect of his
decisions. It is plain silly to make analogies with someone who unexpectedly finds themself in the position of sitting at a railway station and deciding whether one person or five persons should live, and the evidence of the trolleyology experiments is that people do distinguish between letting die and actively killing. The point about the clinician is a legal one: in the absence of rational euthanasia laws, it is safer from his/her viewpoint to refrain from anything which looks like deliberate murder, and this in fact reflects the conventional distinction between omission and commission - but in this particular case, it seems better NOT to make this distinction and to be a utiliarian.

On the other hand, as regards the Fat Man experiment, PB is not quite right in saying that the actor desires the death of the Fat Man, who might conceivably survive being thrown onto the line. This is where the collateral damage idea is relevant. The Fat Man is being sacrificed almost certainly, but unlike the cases of the Death Penalty or torturing suspects or their kids, his death or suffering is not actually the intention but is instead a collateral effect of the actor pushing him: it is the Fat Man's fatness which is the key issue.

The other point I would like to make is that my bias towards utilitarianism makes me impatient with all PB's pissing around over issues like the death penalty and torture. I am against both torture and the death penalty, but I think that if there were absolutely incontrovertible evidence that the DP saved many lives, I would have to think hard of utilitarian reasons to oppose it (I have to ask: how would the rest of you feel on this, viz if the DP clearly did save lives?). Torture is different from the DP because it is possible, and I think desirable, to outlaw it entirely on the legal level and yet be aware that exceptional situations might lead to, and even justify, exceptional remedies. Thus, on torture of the innocents, or for that matter of the probably guilty, ultimately it does come down to numbers: I suppose I am regrettably saying that torture of a terrorist's child would be justified if it were undisputably the one way to save multitudes of lives. (I don't in fact think that such a scenario would ever arise, and such thoughts are so way out of the norm to be irrelevant - there would always be a way to use psychological warfare which made the terrorist erroneously believe that his child was being tortured).

If I have to come to a conclusion it is that, if the numbers are big enough, then I am afraid that the most horrible things would be justified to save lives. In fact, however, life is very seldom like that: we ordinary folk are unlikely to be in these godlike situations, thank whatever, and so our natural inclination (which I think the law recognises) is to do nothing unless we are very sure that action is going to have the result we desire.

keithprosser2
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#44 Postby keithprosser2 » October 3rd, 2011, 12:45 pm

As things seem quiet today, I'll contribute an observation. Most real world choices involve a compromise in that there are winners and losers. In most trolleyology scenarios the upside and downside are the same - life or death. That means that the 'right answer' from a utilitarian point of view comes down to simple arithmetic - the choice that results in fewest deaths is clearly the best one, even if it not the intuitive one.

In the real world the upside for the winners is not the same as the downside for the losers. Does a small benefit to a million people outweigh a large downside for a thousand? Well it depends on how small and how large! AFAIK, there is no way to quantify how large or small a benefit or downside is (except in trivial cases, I suppose such as if amounts of cash were involved).

So trolleyology is really an exercise in arithmetic, not in solving moral dilemmas and the need for subjective judgement is only slightly (if all) reduced by applying utilitarianist principles.

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Alan H
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#45 Postby Alan H » December 6th, 2011, 5:24 pm

An interesting experiment on trolleyology: PEOPLE WILL VIRTUALLY KILL ONE TO SAVE FIVE
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?

Lord Muck oGentry
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#46 Postby Lord Muck oGentry » December 6th, 2011, 9:27 pm

These discussions often remind me of The Brothers Karamazov and particularly of this bit:
http://www.online-literature.com/dostoe ... amazov/35/

Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature -- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance -- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."

"No, I wouldn't consent," said Alyosha softly.

"And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy for ever?"

"No, I can't admit it. Brother," said Alyosha [...]


Ivan's second question and Alyosha's answer raise an interesting and difficult point about happiness. What would it mean for us to be happy on such terms? We'd have to be a pretty unreflective lot, I suppose.
What we can't say, we can't say and we can't whistle it either. — Frank Ramsey

thundril
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#47 Postby thundril » December 8th, 2011, 2:56 pm

The ultimate trolleyology question, that one. And I am currently debating (for my sins?) with one such unreflective worshipper of the cosmic psychopath on the Theologica forum. A frightening experience, but worth it for the insights, I think.

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animist
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#48 Postby animist » December 8th, 2011, 8:55 pm

thundril wrote:The ultimate trolleyology question, that one. And I am currently debating (for my sins?) with one such unreflective worshipper of the cosmic psychopath on the Theologica forum. A frightening experience, but worth it for the insights, I think.
which of the innumerable such worshippers do you mean, Thun? Still, you and I are forcing them to come a bit out of their certainty cocoons. Trouble is, they tend to retreat when the going gets tough: I've not had a real answer yet to the question of how one is supposed to just change one's beliefs in order to placate the cosmic psychopath. How is it that the Xian meme has survived so long? I actually like JC and at least some of his followers. But how can any of them want to live forever with some supremo who condemns most of their acquaintances to perpetual torment?

thundril
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#49 Postby thundril » December 8th, 2011, 9:05 pm

animist wrote:
thundril wrote:The ultimate trolleyology question, that one. And I am currently debating (for my sins?) with one such unreflective worshipper of the cosmic psychopath on the Theologica forum. A frightening experience, but worth it for the insights, I think.
which of the innumerable such worshippers do you mean, Thun?

David Oldham. (the above link is to the specific discussion) What a fuckin monster! (Whoops! I'm being unirenic!)
animist wrote:Still, you and I are forcing them to come a bit out of their certainty cocoons. Trouble is, they tend to retreat when the going gets tough:

Or else they just repeat the same undefended assertion over and over. David's favourite is 'we do have choices'. Never meets a challenge to the assertion, though!
animist wrote: I've not had a real answer yet to the question of how one is supposed to just change one's beliefs in order to placate the cosmic psychopath.

Free Will, innit? :D (ducks)
animist wrote:How is it that the Xian meme has survived so long? Yet I actually like JC and at least some of his followers

I like Jesus too. But Jesus loves me, so it's a bit awkard.

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animist
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#50 Postby animist » February 24th, 2012, 11:42 am

http://www.philosophynow.org/issues/88/ ... _Neighbour

this article applies the trolley problem to the question of whether we would always prefer to save a human life rather than any number of animal lives

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Emma Woolgatherer
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#51 Postby Emma Woolgatherer » February 24th, 2012, 11:51 am

An easy one this time. Kill the kittens!

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animist
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#52 Postby animist » February 24th, 2012, 11:55 am

Emma Woolgatherer wrote:An easy one this time. Kill the kittens!

if it were 100 young chimps or (threatened) orangutans or gorillas, versus one old man (er, eg Adolf Hitler - actually, as it's him, better to make him the young Adolf) would it still be that easy? And if it were puppies rather than kittens? :wink:

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Emma Woolgatherer
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#53 Postby Emma Woolgatherer » February 24th, 2012, 3:51 pm

I knew you were going to ask the "puppies rather than kittens" question. And the answer is still "Save the baby". Similarly, if it were my own dog and a baby, I'd save the baby.

Apart from the usual unknowns (have the baby and kittens/puppies been tied to the tracks by some evil philosopher, or have they simply crawled/wandered onto them by chance?) , there's something not entirely clear about this particular question. Which is the "do nothing" option? Tallis asks: "Which way should we throw the switch?" Which implies that we have to throw it one way or the other. But what would happen if we do nothing? Where's the train going? In the case of puppies and kittens, it makes little difference. If the train were heading for the puppies or kittens, I wouldn't divert it towards the baby. If the train were heading for the baby, I would divert it towards the puppies or kittens. If the train were heading for my dog, I wouldn't divert it towards the baby. If it were heading for the baby, I'd probably hesitate slightly longer before diverting it towards my dog.

But 100 mountain gorillas (say) versus the young Adolf Hitler? Oh, confusing. Hitler's dead. Let's stick with living people. How about Robert Mugabe?

I don't know, but I suspect that if the train were heading for Mugabe, I wouldn't divert it towards the mountain gorillas. And that if the train were heading for the mountain gorillas, I wouldn't divert it towards Mugabe. It's not that I think the "do nothing" option is a morally neutral one — far from it. But I wouldn't be acting after careful conscious deliberation and weighing up of ethical considerations. I would be acting by instinct. And I think my instinct when faced with such a dilemma would be to shut down. And I'm not convinced that I would find an answer to this one even if I had the luxury of time to consider. Killing the mountain gorillas and killing Mugabe would both be wrong, by my own personal moral principles, but I don't know which would be more wrong.

Oh, I don't know, though. Maybe I would divert the train towards Mugabe. Not out of moral conviction, but out of malice.

Emma

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animist
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#54 Postby animist » February 24th, 2012, 4:34 pm

thanks for all this, I guess you are more of a speciesist than I am - in theory, not in practice. Imagine that the baby were an orphan and severely disabled, would that make a difference? What did you think of Tallis's argument apart from the trolley bit? He does not really defend specieism, just asserts it; but this solidarity of humans - would it justify killing intelligent aliens if it seemed to benefit us?

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Alan H
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#55 Postby Alan H » February 24th, 2012, 4:38 pm

Emma Woolgatherer wrote:Oh, I don't know, though. Maybe I would divert the train towards Mugabe. Not out of moral conviction, but out of malice.
I love the honesty!
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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Alan H
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#56 Postby Alan H » July 27th, 2014, 11:47 pm

An interesting twist - Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics: Google and the Trolley Problem
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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animist
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#57 Postby animist » August 2nd, 2014, 12:07 pm

thanks for keeping this thread going, and I think the article does justify my starting it: several people here complained that it was a mere "thought experiment" (which in fact is a normal philosophical device) but, yes, I assume that driverless cars are coming. Asimov's First Law always was a nonsense because it ignores what seems to me to be the central ethical dilemma: of doing nothing and letting people die/suffer OR intervening and maybe causing havoc and, moreover, opening up oneself to the risk of criminal prosecution

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animist
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#58 Postby animist » August 2nd, 2014, 3:53 pm

maybe there should have been four Asimov laws for robots.

Law 1 would be: "A robot must not intentionally injure a human being". Then Law 2 would be: "A robot must not through inaction allow a human being to be injured unless obeying this rule might conflict with rule 1" - and so on.

Such a reformulation might answer the question that the article posed: it is not for robots (or driverless vehicles) to make the sort of decision that the trolley problem poses, is it?

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#59 Postby Lord Muck oGentry » September 19th, 2014, 5:38 pm

Lady Muck reminded me of a pendant to the Karamazov quotation:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_W ... rom_Omelas

In Ursula Leguin's story
The city's constant state of serenity and splendor requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery.

Once citizens are old enough to know the truth, most, though initially shocked and disgusted, are ultimately able to come to terms with the fact and resolve to live their lives in such a manner as to make the suffering of the unfortunate child worthwhile. However, a few citizens, young and old, silently walk away from the city, and no one knows where they go. The story ends with "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."
What we can't say, we can't say and we can't whistle it either. — Frank Ramsey

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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#60 Postby lucagrabacr » October 24th, 2014, 6:17 pm

It depends. Does the other guy is also a fat man? Does he look younger than the fat man? Is he wearing a nicer suit? And other aspects. All of which, even though I don't like saying it, indicates which one of them are more worthy to live.

But if the two of them were identical twins, and living the same kind of life, then yes I would've chosen to kill the the other guy instead of the one next to me.

A more interesting question I think, would be if we rather kill ourselves or a medical scientist working on a cure for cancer to save those lives.

Of course in my hypothetical question, we're hypothetically less important than the scientist, or the dilemma wouldn't be there
When I'm told to think, I just can't see what I see when I'm thinking for myself

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Dave B
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Re: Utilitarianism and Trolleyology

#61 Postby Dave B » September 3rd, 2016, 2:39 pm

The trolley problem has been cracked, by a two year old!

"Look forward; yesterday was a lesson, if you did not learn from it you wasted it."
Me, 2015


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