I just posted this to LessWrong.
A trolley problem is something that's used increasing often in philosophy to get at people's beliefs and debate on them. Here's an example from Wikipedia:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
I believe trolley problems are fundamentally flaws - at best a waste of time, and at worst lead to really sloppy thinking. Here's four reasons why:
1. It assumes perfect information about outcomes.
2. It ignores the global secondary effects that local choices create.
3. It ignores real human nature - which would be to freeze and be indecisive.
4. It usually gives you two choices and no alternatives, and in real life, there's always alternatives.
First, trolley problems contain perfect information about outcomes - which is rarely the case in real life. In real life, you're making choices based on imperfect information. You don't know what would happen for sure as a result of your actions.
Second, everything creates secondary effects. If putting people involuntarily in harm's way to save others was an acceptable result, suddenly we'd all have to be really careful in any emergency. Imagine living in a world where anyone would be comfortable ending your life to save other people nearby - you'd have to not only be constantly checking your surroundings, but also constantly on guard against do-gooders willing to push you onto the tracks.
Third, it ignores human nature. Human nature is to freeze up when bad things happen unless you're explicitly trained to react. In real life, most people would freeze or panic instead of react. In order to get over that, first responders, soldiers, medics, police, firefighters go through training. That training includes dealing with questionable circumstances and how to evaluate them, so you don't have a society where your trained personnel act randomly in emergencies.
Fourth, it gives you two choices and no alternatives. I firmly reject this - I think there's almost always alternative ways to get there from here if you open your mind to it. Once you start thinking that your only choice is to push the one guy in front of the trolley or to stand there doing nothing, your mind is closed to all other alternatives.
At best, this means trolley problems are just a harmless waste of time. But I think they're not just a harmless waste of time.
I think "trolley problems" are commonly used in real life to justify tyranny and oppression.
Here's how it goes:
Activist says, "We've got to take from this rich fat cat and give it to these poor people, or the poor people will starve and die. If you take the money, the fat cat will buy less cars and yachts, and the poor people will become much more successful and happy."
You'll see all the flawed I described above in that statement.
First, it assumes perfect information. The activist says that taking more money will lead to less yachts and cars - useless consumption. He doesn't consider that people might first cut their charity budget, or their investment budget, or something else. Higher tax jurisdictions, like Northern Europe, have very low levels of charitable giving. They also have relatively low levels of capital investment.
Second, it ignores secondary effects. The activist assumes he can milk the cow and the cow won't mind. In reality, people start spending their time on minimizing their tax burden instead of doing productive work. It ripples through society.
Third, it ignores human nature. Saying "the fat cat won't miss it" is false - everyone is loss averse.
Fourth, the biggest problem of all, it gives two choices and no alternatives. "Tax the fat cat, or the poor people starve" - is there no other way to encourage charitable giving? Could we give charity visas where anyone giving $500,000 in philanthropy to the poor can get fast-track residency into the USA? Could we give larger tax breaks to people who choose to take care of distant relatives as a dependent? Are there other ways? Once the debate gets constrained to, "We must do this, or starvation is the result" you've got problems.
And I think that these poor quality thoughts on policy are a direct descendant of trolley problems. It's the same line of thinking - perfect information, ignores secondary effects, ignores human nature, and gives two choices while leaving no other alternatives. That's not real life. That's sloppy thinking.
Your analysis of this is excellent.
Another point one could add is that this situation is an "emergency situation", a life-or-death situation where it's kill-or-be-killed, and is one which the majority of people are unlikely to ever experience -- yet activists often use reasoning like this to justify the creation of policies for every day life. For instance, it is true that there are often conflicts of interests in an emergency situation (if it's a life-or-death scenario), but I reject that normal life has to be a series of "conflicts of interests", or that there are only two roles in society to play: victimizer or victim, as some activists (particularly those of the Marxist variety with the social conflict theory) are apt to claim, based on their reasoning from irrelevant examples like the trolley problem.
The kinds of debates you mention make me think that (shockingly!) some people on the internet have gotten it very wrong.
The trolley problem, the way I've always understood it and heard it articulated by those who study it, has to do with investigating the hard-wired moral instincts that we seem to have -- not to do with bolstering or attacking any ethical system. It's a thought experiment by people looking into the question: how much of our morality is cultural and/or arbitrary, and how much is built into us by millions of years of evolution as social animals?
The trolley problem is usually presented as two scenarios, each containing a choice. The scenarios are very similar: 1) standing beside the fat man on a bridge, trolley hurtling towards five people below, would you push him off to save them? versus 2) standing near the tracks by a switch, trolley hurtling toward a fork in the track, do you throw the switch and send the trolley into the one guy on the left fork -- or do you stand back and let the trolley go down the right fork and kill the five people standing there?
The interesting thing is that the scenarios are virtually identical in "costs and options". In both cases, you're the only person in a position to act, and doing nothing is sure to result in the death of five people. In both cases, you can choose to act, to do one single thing, and the result is that one person will die, but the five will be safe. When researchers put this dilemma to people all over the world, in different cultures, in different languages, they find something really cool. There's a big split in the "push" option showing that about 80% of people would NOT push the guy off the bridge...they'd rather stand back and do nothing. Yet there's another big split in the "switch" option: about 80% of people WOULD throw the switch, rather than standing back and doing nothing.
The research seems to suggest that humans have certain innate "moral calculators" built into the brain, hard-wired by evolution to react to different situations.
Heheh, strange that you should say that. I've read about this problem before, but this was the first time I thought of the obvious solution of jumping myself - and then I thought that I might not be heavy enough, since I've shed all those extra pounds.
I saw the article "Memoirs of a Bullied Kid" on the site Single Dad Laughing. It's written by a guy named Dan Pearce, and he seems like a hell of a guy. He's talking about raising his son, about accepting yourself, dealing with conflict, things like that. Pretty inspirational and good stuff.
The Memoirs of a Bullied Kid article must've taken a lot of guts to write, and I massively respect that. That said, I disagree with his conclusion on how to deal with violent bullies. So I want to send some praise and respect in his direction, but also some significant disagreement.
I originally wrote this as a comment for Hacker News, but it came out to about a normal post's length. Tone is more discussion site level than blog post level, but you'll get the gist of it -
"Son, as soon as someone puts their hands on you..."
This comment will be controversial, especially for North Americans and Western Europeans. I ask you to read it and think about it a moment before reacting, and comment if you disagree. I believe what I'm about to say is true, and I'm not trying to get a rise out of people - I want to fix some problems with society.
There are many texts available that advise people on the best business, management, or organizational practices. They expound on several strategies and experiences that have been tried and true in the realm of leadership. You know them, they're written by Kotter, Collins, Maxwell, etc. What if instead of strategizing you believed in or questioned your leadership skills in order to find success? What if you took the philosophical approach to leadership? Maybe you should. Experts are currently arguing a degree in philosophy will show bigger a payoff in organizations than the traditional MBA. According to recent studies, "by mid-career, the salaries of philosophy graduates surpasses those of marketing, communications, accounting and business management." (Poulsen, 2013)
Academics are currently arguing that business school does not give students the tools to take on a job. The average business school being dubiously described as “taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.” (Poulsen, 2013) In the evolving landscape of the workplace the constant questioning and critical thinking required of philosophy majors give them the leadership advantage of easily dealing with new situations and solving problems.
Philosophizing can also greatly affect the ethics of your organization. There are many philosophical problems that can be applied to leadership issues. A common query posed on leaders today called the trolley problem asks people to make a decision regarding an out of control trolley. There are five people who are sure to die if the trolley continues to careen. You can flip a switch and kill a pedestrian. Or throw a person on the rails killing them. Both solutions cause the death.of an innocent bystander to save the lives of five passengers, but which one do leaders find more morally and ethically sound? Many choose the switch as it not the physical act of harming people, just the unfortunate result of a indirect action. Which one is correct is up to the philosophizer. (Johnson, 2012, pg.393)
The trolley problem obviously arises on high level decision making such as ethical euthanasia in hospitals and drone strikes in the military - these are leadership calls many of us will never have to experience making. But a similar philosophical dilemma occurs within decision making in corporations. Are there sacrifices of the few that would benefit the many? How does this apply and what do you believe is right in your organization? For your customers? Your mission statement? Corporate culture? Hiring decisions? Your Corporate Social Responsibility? Are these decisions justified?