Moral Monday: The Trolley Problem and the Fat Villain

Trolley Problem - photo by

This week, we are going to look at the third in a series of trolley-related moral dilemmas. In the first poll, the majority of you guys said you would flip a switch to divert a trolley headed toward five people toward only one instead. In the second poll, the majority of you said you would not push a fat man into the path of a trolley, even it would save the lives of five people it was headed toward.

Jimmy left an interesting comment on the poll from last week:

The lead up to this question mentions that in surveys given to the general population people would flip the switch. I’m assuming the general population here is an anglo culture in which moral decisions seem to be heavily influenced by utilitarianism. I wonder how the percentages line up in different cultures and what leads others to process this moral decision.

Also it’s interesting from the results so far that when it comes to not flipping a switch but shoving a person the decision changes. While shoving a person certainly brings you more proximate to the human situation, ultimately it’s a very similar situation with different poll results when the human side of the decision is more proximate. I’d argue that one main goal in making moral decisions is to bring this human element to the fore-front and try to see as clearly as possible the human consequences of your decision. Emmanuel Levinas, a French Jewish philosopher of the 20th century, argued that all ethics comes from the face-to-face encounter of the other; moreover, moral decisions should be made in light of the human face of the other. I think there is something to be said for his theory.

Both points are very interesting! The second is one that I have dealt more closely with. Experiments that I’ve read about have tended to show two things:

  1. We are more likely to help someone in trouble when they are in person.
  2. We are more likely to help someone when we are the only person that can possibly do so. The more people around that could help, the less likely anyone is to help.

For example, a famous thought experiment presents the following two scenarios:

  1. You are walking to class/work one morning when you see a small boy drowning in a pond that you’re passing. You need to act immediately if you’re going to have time to save him, but you have on your brand new pair of $100 dollar shoes that will be ruined if you dive in to save the boy. Do you save him?
  2. After returning home from class/work, you receive an letter in the mail that asks for a $100 donation. This money can be used by the nonprofit Feed the Children to save the lives of 100 children in Africa who would otherwise starve to death. Do you send them the money?

The cost in both situations is exactly the same, yet in the first situation, you save the life of one person, and in the second you save the life of 100 people. I’ve done this in Intro to Philosophy classes I teach, and without fail, the large majority of the people would help in the first situation but not the second. The rationalizations used to justify this are always entertaining (there could be a corrupt person in the organization siphoning off funds and it will never go to the children).

What’s interesting, and what has caused a lot of debate, is that these are all pscyhological rather than moral factors that affect these moral decisions. This example seems to back up what Levinas is saying: being face-to-face matters.

The problem is that a large number of the ethical dilemmas in our modern, globalized society have to be thought about and solved in abstract ways that are nothing like face-to-face encounters. Corporations and governments have to make decisions every day that will impact thousands, even millions of people. And they’re doing so without the face-to-face component that seems to be so important. A huge question is how we adapt to that.

As a follow-up to the last question, we’re going to change one slight variable and see how that changes the polling:

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. This fat man is the very villain who had tied the five people below to the tracks. Should you proceed?

You may also like: