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.
Child poverty refers to the phenomenon of children living in poverty. This applies to children that come from poor families or orphans being raised with limited, or in some cases absent, state resources. Children that fail to meet the minimum acceptable standard of life for the nation where that child lives are said to be poor. In developing countries these standards are lower and when combined with the increased number of orphans the effects are more extreme. The legal definition of children in most countries is 'persons under the age of eighteen', while biologically the transition from childhood to adulthood is said to occur with the onset of puberty. Culturally defining the end of childhood is more complex, and takes into account factors such as the commencement of work, end of schooling and marriage as well as class, gender and race. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) "children living in poverty are those who experience deprivation of the material, spiritual and emotional resources needed to survive, develop and thrive, leaving them unable to enjoy their rights, achieve their full potential or participate as full and equal members of society". The ChildFund International (CFI) definition is based on Deprivation (lack of materialistic conditions and services), Exclusion (denial of rights and safety) and Vulnerability (when society can not deal with threats to children). Other charitable organisations also use this multi-dimensional approach to child poverty, defining it as a combination of economic, social, cultural, physical, environmental and emotional factors. These definitions suggest child poverty is multidimensional, relative to their current and changing living conditions and complex interactions of the body, mind and emotions are involved. The easiest way to quantify child poverty is by setting an absolute or relative monetary threshold. If a family does not earn above that threshold, the children of that family will be considered to live below the poverty line. Absolute poverty thresholds are fixed and generally only updated for price changes, whereas relative poverty thresholds are developed with reference to the actual income of the population and reflect changes in consumption. The absolute poverty threshold is the money needed to purchase a defined quantity of goods and services. While there is no exact standard used to set the threshold, and it varies from country to country, it generally reflects the minimum income needed to acquire the necessities of life. Certain organisations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, use the absolute poverty threshold of US$1 a day to measure poverty in developing countries. Since the 1960s, the US has used an absolute poverty threshold adjusted for family size and composition to determine those living in poverty. Europe and many other developed countries use a relative poverty threshold, typically 50% of the countries' average income. Relative poverty does not necessarily mean the child is lacking anything, but is more a reflection of inequality in society. Child poverty, when measured using relative thresholds, will only improve if low-income families benefit more from economic advances than well-off families. Measures of child poverty using income thresholds will vary depending on whether relative or absolute poverty is measured and what threshold limits are applied. Using a relative measure, poverty is much higher in the US than in Europe, but if an absolute measure is used, then poverty in some European countries is higher. It is argued that using income as the only threshold ignores the multidimensional aspect of child poverty, which includes consumption requirements, access to resources and the ability to interact in society safely and without discrimination. A 2003 study conducted by researchers out of Bristol attempted to provide a scientific basis for measuring severe deprivation based on levels of adequate nutrition, safe drinking water, decent sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education, and information. Measurable values were attributed to each indicator and these were used to establish how many children were living in poverty. The values included: heights and weights more than 3 deviations below the international median, children with access only to rivers and other surface water, no access to toilets, no immunisations, no access to medical advice, living in dwellings with more than five people per room, no school attendance and no access to newspapers or other media. Out of a population of 1.8 billion children from developing nations, 56% were below at least one of these measurements. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, this number increased to over 80%, with the rural children from these areas the worst affected. The Young Lives Project is investigating the changing nature of child poverty by following nearly 12 000 children for 15 years in four countries (Ethiopia, Peru, Vietnam and India), chosen to reflect a wide range of cultural, political, geographical and social contexts. Every three to four years, researchers will collect data on the children and their families health, malnutrition, literacy, access to services and other indicators of poverty. Reports are available for these four countries that comparing the initial data obtained in 2002 with data from 2006. Peru, Vietnam and India have shown economic growth and a reduction in poverty over this time, but large inequalities still exist between rural and urban areas, and among ethnic groups. This is particularly obvious in India, a country with the second largest population of billionaires but also home to 25% of the worlds poor. Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, has also shown slight economic growth and reduction in poverty. Inequalities still exist, with boys more likely to be malnourished than girls and more absolute poverty in rural areas, although relative poverty is higher in urban areas. This data was collected before the 2008 drought and the recent increase in food prices, which have had a severe impact on the ability of Ethiopia to feed its population Capability Approach and the Child Development Index  Recently,[when?] debate among philosophers and theorists on how to define and measure poverty stems from the emergence of the human capability approach, where poverty is defined by Hi Kos extent of freedoms that a person possesses. Amartya Sen, the creator of the capability approach, argues that there are five fundamental freedoms that should be available to all humans: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security. He also suggests that they are all interconnected, where each freedom fosters and/or enhances the others. Additionally, the capability approach claims that development should be considered a process of expanding freedoms or removing the major sources of unfreedom rather than a focus on narrower measurements such as growth of gross national product, per capita income, or industrialization. According to kos basic needs approach (which in most aspects is quite like the capability approach), the objective of development should be to provide all humans with the opportunity to a full life, which goes beyond abstractions such as money, income, or employment. Therefore, the definition and measurement of poverty in general must extend beyond measurements like per capita GDP, which tools such as the Human Development Index attempt to accomplish. In light of this, a UK initiative, Save the Children, has also developed a measurement of child poverty based on measures of capability, called the Child Development Index (CDI). CDI is an index that combines performance measures specific to children – primary education, child health, and child nutrition – to produce a score on a scale of 0 to 100, with zero being the best with higher scores indicating worse performances. According to Save the Children, each of the indicators was chosen because it was easily accessible, universally understood, and clearly indicative of child wellbeing. Health measures under-five mortality rate; nutrition measures the percentage of children under five who are moderately or severely underweight (which is two standard deviations below the median weight for age of the reference population); and education measures the percentage of primary school-age children that are not enrolled in school. In terms of opportunities and capabilities, CDI is the most appropriate measurement of child poverty. Prevalence Of the estimated 2.2 billion children worldwide, about a billion, or every second child, live in poverty. Of the 1.9 billion children in developing nations, 640 million are without adequate shelter; 400 million are without access to safe water; 270 million have no access to health services. In 2003, 10.6 million children died before reaching the age of five, which is equivalent to the total child population of France, Germany, Greece, and Italy. 1.4 million die each year from lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation while 2.2 million die each year due to lack of immunizations. The Child Development Index also illustrates relative child poverty compared across all regions of the world (see Measuring child poverty). World performance: CDI = 17.5 Africa: CDI = 34.5 Middle East/North Africa: CDI = 11.2 Central/East Europe and Central Asia: CDI = 9.2 South Asia: CDI = 26.4 East Asia: CDI = 8.5 Latin America and Caribbean: CDI = 6.8 Developed Countries: CDI = 2.1 The CDI in Africa is twice that of the world average, and South Asia also fares poorly in relation to the global performance. In contrast, the CDI in developed countries is one-ninth of the world CDI, indicating a clear distinction between developing and developed nations. However, in 2013, child poverty reached record high levels in the United States, with 16.7 million children, more than 20%, living in food insecure households. 47 million Americans depend on food banks, more than 30% above 2007 levels. Households headed by single mothers are most likely to be affected. Worst effected are the District of Columbia, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida, while North Dakota, New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota and Massachusetts are the least affected. Causes With a lot of children in lose they can despair and just die by accident. The majority of poverty-stricken children are born to poor parents. Therefore the causes such as adult poverty, government policies, lack of education, unemployment, social services, disabilities and discrimination significantly affect the presence of child poverty. Lack of parental economic resources such as disposable income restricts children’s opportunities. Economic and demographic factors such as deindustrialization, globalization, residential segregation, labor market segmentation, and migration of middle-class residents from inner cities, constrain economic opportunities and choices across generation, isolating inner-city poor children. The loss of “family values”, or decline of the nuclear family, illegitimacy, teen pregnancy, and increased numbers of single mothers, is also cited as a major cause of poverty and welfare dependency for women and their children. Kids resulting from unintended pregnancies are more likely to live in poverty; raising a child requires significant resources, so each additional child increases demands on parental resources. Families raised by a single parent are generally poorer than those raised by couples. In the United States, 6 of 10 long term poor children have spent time in single parent families and in 2007, children living in households headed by single mothers were five times as likely as children living in households headed by married parents to be living in poverty. Many of the apparent negative associations between growing up poor and children’s attainments reflect unmeasured parental advantages that positively affect both parents’ incomes and children’s attainments, like parental depression. Effects Developed countries Developed countries also have a serious problem with child poverty. If all the 16.7 million poor children in America were gathered in one place, they would form a city bigger than New York. Many published studies have demonstrated strong associations between childhood poverty and the child’s adult outcomes in education, health and socialization, fertility, labor market, and income. Strong evidence suggests that children of low income parents have an increased risk of intellectual and behavioral development problems. Large negative associations between poverty during early childhood and academic outcomes have been consistently found in many studies. Furthermore, children in poverty have a greater risk of displaying behavior and emotional problems, such as disobedience, impulsiveness, and difficulty getting along with peers, and family poverty is associated with higher risk for teen childbearing, less positive peer relations, and lower self-esteem. In terms of economic disadvantages, adults who experienced persistent childhood poverty are more likely to fall below the poverty line at least once later in life. Poor boys work fewer hours per year, earn lower hourly wages, receive lower annual earnings, and spend more week idle in their mid-twenties. Paternal income is also strongly associated with adult economic status. Also, childhood poverty in the first three years of life is related to substandard nutritional status and poor motor skills; in contrast, poverty is also associated with child obesity – as they get older, poor children are more likely to have chronic health problems, such as asthma and anemia. These impacts probably reflect issues related to poverty including a substandard diet, inferior housing conditions, poor neighborhood environment, reduced access to goods and activities and the psychological stress stemming from these factors.