Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Bonus Quote of the Day: On the problem of the Trolley Problem

 

Today’s bonus quote comes from Robert Tracinski’s October, 2016, article ‘The Humanitarian with the Trolley’:

The Trolley Problem is all the rage now when people write about self-driving cars … [It] is an old philosophical conundrum about a runaway streetcar, where you have to decide whether to pull a switch that will divert the trolley onto Track B--where it will kill a single person--thereby diverting it from Track A, where it would kill a whole crowd full of school kids who all look exactly like Oliver Twist from that old movie. You get the idea…
     “Ayn Rand's memorable rejoinder was in ‘The Ethics of Emergencies,’ where she dismissed such ‘lifeboat’ scenarios as irrelevant to morality. Moral principles are formed from and intended for the 99.9% of existence that happens when you are not in a life-and-death emergency. So the question is: why are philosophers so fascinated with those extremely rare scenarios?
    “The most superficial reason, though I think it is actually a factor, is that such scenarios make ethics and morality seem brain-bustingly intractable. They make the esoteric ideas and reasoning of professional philosophers seems like the equivalent of quantum physics in its complexity. By contrast, things like figuring out whether you should cheat on your wife, or whether you should take a job that you don't enjoy because it pays more money--the ordinary kind of moral decisions people actually make in most of their lives--require very broad principles like ‘honesty’ that just anybody could understand. Which makes the task of the philosopher seem positively mundane, like a glorified version of Dear Abby.’ …
    “Yet there's a deeper and much creepier attraction. Notice that all of these emergency situations have one thing in common: they require sacrifice. Somebody has to die if others are going to live. They all carry the implicit premise that moral problems require sacrifice, and that the main purpose of morality is to tell us who should be sacrificed to whom… So the purpose of starting with the trollies and lifeboats is to instil in us the idea that morality is synonymous with altruism, that it is synonymous with a morality of sacrifice.
    Logically and historically, this is not true. There have been egoistic theories of ethics and those in which men's rational interests are considered to be harmonious and sacrifice is regarded as unnecessary. And it's not just theories of ethics. The science of economics, with concepts like division of labour, comparative advantage, and the invisible hand, was founded on that premise.
    “It is the job of philosophers to separate out these hidden assumptions, to distinguish the idea of morality from the idea of sacrifice and to help us to think about them as separate issues. But I don't think it will be news to anyone … that today's philosophers aren't doing their jobs. In their loyalty to the ethical theory of altruism, they seek to equate it with morality itself, and the lifeboat and trolley scenarios help them do this and to propagate that assumption to the next generation of philosophy students.”

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8 comments:

  1. Looking forward to driverless cars, should be able to bully them and they'll just get out of the way.

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  2. While I agree with most of this, one reason for the attraction of these problems isn't addressed: 99% or more of all philosophies overlap, so we have to look at the areas where they don't overlap in order to figure out their differences. What I mean is, for a philosophy to not be immediately dismissed (or relegated to practice by a few fanatics) the philosophy has to allow people to live their lives like normal. It's only in abnormal situations, such as emergencies, that differences between philosophies practiced in a culture can be clearly seen.

    An Objectivist and a Marxist will go to work, eat their meals, play with their children, and care for their homes--an Objectivist because they believe it rational to do so, a Marxist because they believe it's a duty to do so, but regardless, normal life doesn't present much with which an outsider can differentiate between the different philosophies. Emergencies, on the other hand, do provide opportunities to differentiate between them.

    That said, I do wonder whether the over-use of such questions in philosophy has led to the increased view that our world is on the cusp of disaster. If ethics is all about emergencies, than to make something an ethical issue you must make it an emergency. For example, you can't just say "It's wrong to dictate who business owners allow to use what bathroom", you have to make it a choice of catastrophic proportions--otherwise, morality isn't applicable and you can't take the moral high ground! This would explain much of the political discourse in the USA.

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  3. Dinwar: "An Objectivist and a Marxist will go to work, eat their meals, play with their children, and care for their homes--an Objectivist because they believe it rational to do so, a Marxist because they believe it's a duty to do so, but regardless, normal life doesn't present much with which an outsider can differentiate between the different philosophies. Emergencies, on the other hand, do provide opportunities to differentiate between them. "

    That's more to do with collective versus individual action. As individuals we all tend to operate the same way when it comes to the morality of, say, stealing your neighbor's wealth or invading his home. But via collective action--the state and the politicians we vote for--most people throw that personal morality out the window and happily support confiscatory taxation and civil rights violations. A person is smart; people are stupid.

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    1. That agrees with a recent conversation I had, in which the other person tried to argue that individual actions can be moral/immoral while collective (government) actions can only be ethical/unethical. It makes no sense to me, but it does demonstrate that people explicitly abandon morality when it comes to government, as you say.

      Part of the issue--a big part--is that people aren't taught that politics is a subset of morality. The trolley problem and deontological moral codes present the picture of morality being very limited in scope, with government action well outside that scope.

      Food for thought, certainly....Thanks! :)

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  4. Real Objectivists won't have children because they get in the way of me me me and heaven on earth etc... A Marxist will have children but will let the state bring them up so just pretends to work while drinking vodka.

    I remember the old Star Trek film where Spock gets saved by Kirk and the gang and then faces a Vulcan dilemma in that many risked their lives to save the one - it was not logical. Kirk responds with, "The need of the one was greater than the needs of the many". It wasn't sensible (apart from allowing another episode) but it was great humanity.

    3:16

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    1. I presume this comment must be satire?

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    2. Objectivists have children because we're not concrete-bound sensationalists. My children cost me a certain amount in terms of material wealth, opportunities, stress, etc., but they provide ample compensation and the rewards of seeing a human being form, and being part of that formative process, are tremendous.

      As for the Star Trek quotes, the situations don't fit the characters' explanations. The Enterprise is a military vessel, and therefore operates under a military protocol. A knowledgeable and able officer is more valuable than fifty ignorant and replaceable crew, but the officer's second duty is to defend his ship (his first is to defend his nation). That explains the apparent discrepancy between the two instances.

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  5. Regrettably I'm not sure it is at all levels although the first bit started out that way. It just seems to me that life cannot always be reduced to an equation - when there's no perceived downside a nation will follow a monster and morality is always negotiable if there's no measure outside our own experience.

    3:16

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