philosophy and concrete moral issues

The Philosopher’s Index (a database) turns up 25 articles that concern “trolley problems.” That’s actually fewer than I expected, given how frequently such problems seem to arise in conversation. Briefly, they involve situations in which an out-of-control trolley is barreling down the tracks toward potential victims, and you can affect its course by throwing a switch that sends it plowing into a smaller group of victims, or by throwing an innocent person in front of the tram. Or you can refrain from interfering.

The purpose of such thought experiments is to use our intuitions as data and learn either: (a) what fundamental principles actually underlie our moral choices, perhaps as a result of natural selection, or (b) which moral theory would consistently and appropriately handle numerous important cases. In either case, the “trolley” story is supposed to serve as an example that brings basic issues to the fore for consideration. The assumption is that we have, or ought to have, a relatively small set of general principles that generate our actual decisions.

I do not think this approach is useless, but it doesn’t interest me, for the following reason. When I consider morally troubling human interactions and choices, I imagine a community or an institution like a standard American public school. The issues that arise, divide, perplex, and worry us in such contexts usually look like this: Ms. X, a teacher, believes that Mr. Y, her colleague, is not dedicated or effective. How should she relate to him in staff meetings? Or, Ms. X thinks that Johnny is not a good student. Johnny is Latino, and Ms. X is worried about her own anti-Latino prejudices. Or, Ms. X assigns Charlotte’s Web, a brilliant work of literature but one whose tragic ending upsets Alison. Should Alison’s parents complain? Or, Mr. and Mrs. B believe that Ms. X is probably a better teacher than Mr. Y. Yet they cannot be sure. Should they try to get their little Johnny into Ms. X’s class, even if that means insulting Mr. Y? Or should they allow Johnny to be assigned by the principal?

Possibly, philosophy has little value in guiding, or even analyzing, such choices. I would like to think that is wrong, and philosophical analysis can be helpful. But it is very hard to see how trolley problems can get us closer to wise to judgment about concrete cases.

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2 Responses to philosophy and concrete moral issues

  1. Doyle says:

    One should never argue with a philosopher about philosophy, but….if I may….

    A version of the trolley problem is made much more concrete and meaningful in this wonderful essay by Peter Singer, The Singer Solution to World Poverty:

    He takes a thought experiment and leads the reader to an answer to the question “why should we care what happens to someone 10,000 miles away?”

    I’ve converted this example into an active-learning scenario in which students gradually replace each part of an equation–that if they had “a $200 car that would be destroyed if they pulled the lever to save the life of a child just down the track”–to realize the morality doesn’t change if the car is 100 feet or 10,000 miles, or if it is pushing a button instead of pulling a lever, or owning fewer CDs instead of having a car destroyed.”

    I’ve never found a more effective piece at conveying why distant poverty and injustice are things that should concern us, nor a better case for our common humanity. Nor a better consideration of the importance of our consumer choices, and the power we have in our hands with a dollar.

    It couples well with a great passage in Nicholas Owen’s Human Rights, Human Wrongs, where an author notices all the South Africans (or Indians?) who have had amputations. The problem was that the cars were so full that they sat on the top of the cards en masse and kept falling off trains and losing limbs on the tracks. The first class cabin, whether through cost segregation or racial segregation–I don’t recall which–had plenty of empty room, which prompted the author to think, ‘You’d rather they have their limbs chopped off horribly than to have to endure them sitting next to you.’

  2. Peter Levine says:

    One problem with the examples I gave is that they are very “micro”–they involve close human interactions among just a few people. Doyle’s examples are about global equality. I want to say, first, that I also think macro issues are very important, and possibly trolley problems help illuminate them. But second, I don’t believe we can solve any macro problems without good institutions, and institutions aren’t good unless they can handle the kinds of cases I mentioned.

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