The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?
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The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?

A Philosophical Conundrum

Thomas Cathcart

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eBook - ePub

The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?

A Philosophical Conundrum

Thomas Cathcart

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A New York Times –bestselling author explores a classic ethical challenge: "This riveting little book is grounded, relevant, and fun" (Gregory Stock, author of The Book of Questions ). A trolley is careening out of control. Up ahead are five workers, and on a spur to the right stands a lone individual. You, a bystander, happen to be standing next to a switch that could divert the trolley, which would save the five, but sacrifice the one—do you pull it? Or say you're watching from an overpass. The only way to save the workers is to drop a heavy object in the trolley's path. And you're standing next to a really fat man... This ethical conundrum—based on British philosopher Philippa Foot's 1967 thought experiment—has inspired decades of lively arguments around the world. Now Thomas Cathcart, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, brings his sharp intelligence, quirky humor, and gift for popularizing serious ideas to "the trolley problem." Framing the issue as a possible crime that is to be tried in the court of public opinion, Cathcart explores philosophy and ethics, intuition and logic. Along the way he makes connections to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, Kant's limits of reason, St. Thomas Aquinas's fascinating Principle of Double Effect, and more. This provocative book explores our most deeply held notions of right and wrong, and asks us to contemplate for ourselves: Would you divert the trolley? Kill one to save five? Would you throw the fat man off the bridge? "Cathcart's charming approach in The Trolley Problem is to dramatize the dilemma by presenting... a trial in the court of public opinion, complete with arguments from lawyers on both sides as well as a psychologist, a professor, a bishop, listeners to a radio call-in show and so forth." — The Wall Street Journal

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The Altruist’s Dilemma

NPR Debates
National Public Radio
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to NPR Debates, the show in which selected listeners meet to debate pressing issues of the day. I’m your host, Jeff Salaby.
Two weeks ago, our debaters argued both sides of The People v. Daphne Jones, the so-called runaway trolley trial. In the following days, we received an unusual avalanche of mail from you, our listeners. Many of your letters attempted to apply moral principles from various religious traditions to the issues raised by the trial. In particular, a number of listeners sought to apply the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” These responses were from, of course, Christians, but also from Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Confucianists, Buddhists, and Baha’is, who cited a version of the Golden Rule from their own scriptures.
As we looked through all of these letters, we noticed a curious phenomenon: Some of them argued for the acquittal of Ms. Jones on the grounds that they themselves would not want to be punished for a well-intended act such as pulling the switch to divert the trolley. Others argued for acquittal because they would want to be treated as she treated the five people whom she saved. Still others argued for convicting Ms. Jones because they would not want to be treated as the innocent man on the siding was treated.
So it appeared that the Golden Rule was ambiguous when applied to deciding the guildit or innocence of Ms. Jones. That got some of our more diabolical minds here at NPR Debates to thinking about how to frame a scenario in which the application of the Golden Rule was less ambiguous.
Leonard, it’s time to read the scenario!
Thanks, Jeff. Here’s what we came up with:
You are on the siding, tied to the track. You see the out-of-control trolley careering toward the five people on the main track. By contorting your body, you can reach the switch with your foot and divert the trolley onto the siding, killing you, but saving the five. Do you flip the switch?
Okay, thanks, Leonard. Hmm, did anyone else’s pulse rate just go up? I know mine did.
So the question on the docket today is: Is altruism always good? Here to debate that question, as it relates to our scenario, are listeners Marv Feldman from Rochester, Minnesota, and Stella Rotelli from Atlanta, Georgia. Marv and Stella were chosen based on the content of their letters. After the debate, we’ll ask the audience to comment on whether it shed any light on the issues raised in the actual runaway trolley trial.
Marv and Stella, welcome to you both. Each of you will present your case in five minutes, and then there will be an opportunity for a two-minute rebuttal. So, Marv, you lead off. Tell us why we should always behave altruistically.
Thanks, Jeff. Well, the first point I’d like to make is something you alluded to in the introduction. If most of the major religions of the world think it’s good to treat others the way we would want to be treated, surely that’s evidence that it’s a good rule. If only one religion valued altruism, we might wonder whether it was really ancient wisdom or just some airy-fairy idealism. But it seems to be a value shared by most, if not all, of the major religions. Could they all be wrong? Sure. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more likely that the ancients were onto something important—that we’re meant to look out for one another in this life—and that we self-centered modern types often blind ourselves to that truth.
The second point I’d like to make is that this new scenario in which I’m chained to the track seems to me to be very similar to the actual events that are the subject of the trial. The only difference is that in the new scenario, if I flip the switch, I’m also the one who pays the price. Now, I’m one who thinks that Daphne Jones is not guilty. I think she did the right thing by pulling the switch and sacrificing Mr. Farley in order to save the five people on the main track. But, if that’s so, I don’t see any reason why I should exempt myself from that calculation. If I was tied to the track on the siding and could still reach the switch, what possible moral argument could I give for not applying the kill-one-to-save-five rule? The truth is there is no such argument. Now, would I really pull the switch in that situation? I don’t know. But the question of whether I would do it is a different question from whether I should do it, and I see no reason to let myself off the hook.
The third point I’d like to make I got off the Web when I Googled altruism. A Princeton University philosopher’s name kept coming up, and he has made up some analogies about altruism that I find pretty convincing. And they speak to today’s question: Is altruism always good?
The question of whether I would do it is a different question from whether I should do it.
I’m probably going to screw up his scenarios a little, but here goes. One of them runs something like this:
You’re on your way to work, and you walk by a small pond. There’s a little kid apparently playing in the water, which is only a few feet deep. When you get close enough to see better, you can tell that he’s a very little guy, and he’s not playing—he’s flailing about in the water, unable to get his footing and about to go under. You look around for his parents, but they’re nowhere in sight. It would be easy enough to wade in and help him out, but you have on a new pair of shoes that cost you three hundred dollars. They’ll be ruined if you go in, and there clearly isn’t time to take them off.
So the question is: Should I wade in or not? Well, now, really. Who of us would not enter the water to save the little guy?
Now, says this professor—Peter Singer is his name—think about this situation. Thousands of children in Third World countries die every day from diseases that could be prevented if they had access to clean drinking water. Giving three hundred dollars to Oxfam would go a long way toward providing clean drinking water for several children. Shouldn’t you always send Oxfam the money you’d otherwise spend on luxury items like fancy shoes?
Or how about this one? A stranger in the subway station offers you enough money to buy that new plasma TV you’ve been thinking about. All you have to do is persuade a young street kid to follow this shady character into his car. You’ve been reading in the paper that a gang of petty crooks has been selling street kids to a “medical” outfit in Haiti, where they kill the kids and sell their organs to wealthy Americans who are waiting for organs. Sounds like Dr. Mapes from the Daphne Jones case, huh?
How many of us would take the money and buy the TV with a clear conscience? None of us, of course.
As it happens, like many middle-class Americans, I own a plasma TV. Singer says that any time any of us buys a luxury item in lieu of giving the money to a charity that provides street kids with the basic necessities of life, we are doing essentially the same thing as giving the kid over to the gangster.
So here’s my argument for altruism. All of us have some of it. All of us would sacrifice ourselves some in some situations. It seems at some level to be a universal value. But if we’re really honest with ourselves, we know we should be just as altruistic in analogous situations, including pulling the switch to save the five despite its causing our own demise. And we know down deep that the reason we aren’t that altruistic in all situations is that we unconsciously or deliberately suppress what we know to be true: that the plight of others has a moral claim on us that we just don’t want to face.
Thank you.
All right, Marv. Excellent. You make a very compelling case. Stella, you’ve got a real challenge—making the case for not always being altruistic. What do you have for us?
Well, Jeff, I feel literally like the devil’s advocate, having to make the case against unbridled altruism. But I do think there’s a good case to be made, and not just by the devil.
Nietzsche thought that the Golden Rule has made us into a culture of wimps.
I took some philosophy courses back in college, and as I thought about this question, the philosopher who kept coming up for me is Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche thought that the Golden Rule has made us into a culture of wimps. He thought we’d been sold a bill of goods, mostly by Christianity, when we learned to divide people into “good,” self-sacrificing people and “bad,” self-serving people. He said we had lost the aristocratic virtues of ancient times—virtues like strength and nobility and self-affirmation. In fact, we have turned those values upside down, he said.
The weak don’t want to be ruled by the strong, but there’s no way they can take them on, so they label the strong “evil” and themselves “good”—out of resentment. In other words, good and evil have gotten defined by the losers. If you turn the other cheek, you’re considered good in our culture, because we have been so influenced by Christianity. But Nietzsche says, if you turn the other cheek, it’s probably because you don’t think you’re strong enough to hit back, and the only way you can get revenge is to label the strong guy bad. He says the “natural” values aren’t good versus evil. The natural values are healthy versus sickly. The strong shouldn’t feel guilty about wielding power. They should take their proper place at the head of the herd. And those who aren’t strong shouldn’t whine or moralize or feel superior because they turn the other cheek. They should either stand up for themselves or accept the authority of the strong.
Now, I know this sounds a lot like the Tea Party or Ayn Rand or something, but I don’t want to take it that far. I feel society should give some extra help to people who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, people who are born into poverty or who are old and frail or who are schizophrenic or whatever. And I know Nietzsche’s philosophy was appropriated and misused by the Nazis. But I do think there’s some truth in what he has to say.
I wouldn’t relate it to the Tea Party so much as to—and I know this is going to sound silly—Oprah and Dr. Phil. I know, I know . . . ha, ha . . . but hear me out. I think it’s important, maybe especially for us women, to not be doormats. We spent way too many years turning the other cheek. Nietzsche was right. That wasn’t “good”; on the contrary, it was unhealthy! Unhealthy for us and unhealthy for our daughters.
So how does this apply to the person tied to the track? I’d say it would be unnatural, unhealthy for someone to flip the switch and divert the trolley to run over himself or herself, even if the trolley would otherwise kill five other people—and despite the fact that I would divert it to run over a total stranger. And, by the way, I wouldn’t divert the trolley to run over my child or my husband or my mother or even my next-door neighbor, either. It wouldn’t be natural. I have a strong tie to my relatives and friends, and it wouldn’t be healthy—or true to myself—to sacrifice them for five strangers.
All right, Stella. Good job. You’ve made a compelling case for self-affirmation. Marv, you have a two-minute rebuttal.
Well, I think Stella has made some good points, but I think her way of thinking is a slippery slope. It seems to me that it would be very easy to justify good old-­fashioned sel...


Estilos de citas para The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?

APA 6 Citation

Cathcart, T. (2013). The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge? ([edition unavailable]). Workman Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)

Chicago Citation

Cathcart, Thomas. (2013) 2013. The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge? [Edition unavailable]. Workman Publishing.

Harvard Citation

Cathcart, T. (2013) The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge? [edition unavailable]. Workman Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Cathcart, Thomas. The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge? [edition unavailable]. Workman Publishing, 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.