Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Would You Kill A Fat Man? save five other people?

Fascinating research into our "moral intuitions" out of the U.K. Here are two cases:

1) A trolley car is out of control and heading towards a group of five people. If you do nothing, all five will die. But if you flip a switch, the car will be diverted onto a side track and kill only one person. Would you flip the switch?

2) A trolley car is out of control and heading towards a group of five people. If you do nothing, all five will die. But in this case you are standing on a bridge over the trolley track. Now, if you throw yourself under the wheels of the trolley, it will not have an effect on the car's forward momentum. But if you push the fat man next to you onto the track, the car will grind to a halt and all five people would be saved, although the fat man will surely die.

Most people would decide to flip the switch in 1), but not push the fat man in 2), even though the amount of good and bad done in each case is the same (five saved, one dead). The reason, according to philosophical bad-boy Peter Singer (of Practical Ethics fame, or infamy), is:

For most of our evolutionary history, human beings have lived in small groups, in which violence could be inflicted only in an up-close and personal way, by hitting, pushing, strangling, or using a stick or stone. To deal with such situations, we developed immediate, emotionally based intuitive responses to the infliction of violence on others. The thought of pushing the stranger off the bridge elicits these responses. On the other hand, it is only in the past couple of centuries - not long enough to have any evolutionary significance - that we have been able to harm anyone by throwing a switch that diverts a train. Hence the thought of doing it does not elicit the same emotional response as pushing someone off a bridge.

The moral, according to Singer: you can't always trust your moral intuitions.

If you wish to submit yourself to moral dilemmas like the one outlined here, visit the Harvard University Cognitive Evolution Laboratory and take their Moral Sense Test. Taste the ethical confusion!


Anonymous said...

Can we push Pete Singer under a train instead?

Anonymous said...


i never touch fat people . . too sticky & sweaty.

But a nice clean switch is so dignified, so technical, so remote control

Dr. Dawg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr. Dawg said...

I can't make the Harvard test work, and have emailed them.

In the meantime, I suggest that the moral choice presented by you and Singer contains hidden variables. A switch will inevitably produce a result--you either continue along one track or another. But pushing a fat man off an overpass to slow down a train? That this will save others can only be an opinion, not a fact, and our moral intuition tells us that we cannot kill because we merely believe that some good will come from the act. Even if good does come from it, the connection between that and forming the intent is far more tenuous--contingent, if you like--than that between the act of throwing a switch and saving five people.

bigcitylib said...

Well, I haven't taken the test yet either, but I think in the research (which I have read about previously) all those hidden variables are supposed to be deemed irrelevant. If you push the fat guy, he dies and five live.

Ti-Guy said...

The test didn't work for me either. But I would have aced it. I'm a very moral person.

greyburr said...

If 4 out of the 5 are named Olsen,Bernardo,Holmoka,Pickton,then I guess the 5 th guy would be doomed in my book.Is the fat guy Limbaugh or Gore?

canuckistanian said...

i'd take ot the fat guy...more food for the rest of us slothful gluttons ;-)