Friday, September 9, 2011

The Problem With The Trolley Problem

The so-called "Trolley Problem" in experimental philosophy, which I discussed in this post, is considered a problem because it seems to demonstrate that our moral judgements tend to be irrational.
Since there is no material difference between the results of acting in both situations (in both instances one person is sacrificed to save five), we would expect no difference in the moral judgement. The problem is that is not what we see. Nearly ninety-five percent of people will claim that throwing the switch to redirect the trolley from the track with five people to the track with one person is morally obligatory, it would be abominable not to. Yet the same percentage of people claim that throwing the one fat man in front of the trolley to save the five people is morally unjustified, it would be abominable to do so.
The traditional explanation that philosophers give in response to the trolley problem is evolutionary. They claim that moral judgements tend to take the form of internal power struggles between different evolutionary drives. In the first situation we are governed by the rational, computational part of the brain. It deals with the numbers, compares one death to five and answers accordingly. In the second hypothetical it is claimed that this part of our brain is challenged and overcome by the more primitive emotional part of the brain which deals with feeling and yells at us "Don't push human beings to their deaths!".
Another, less popular, explanation forgoes the evolutionary and schizoid narratives and simply claims that there is a difference in the two hypotheticals in the depth of emotional salience. There is an immediacy to the action of pushing someone to their death that makes it difficult to mitigate the moral consequences to the conscience.
I'm not entirely sure that the differences between the two explanations go too much further than semantics, although I think the second explanation better frames the issue. The same kind of tension can be seen in many moral judgements, and I think the more examples we examine the better the issue comes into focus.
What does the omnivore say when asked about the morality of animal sacrifice? I believe there is an analogous tension between peoples moral judgement on whether it's right to eat meat, which most people have no moral qualms with, and moral judgement of animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice is just a way of ritualizing the slaughter of food animals, and one could argue that by examining the significance of the act, those who slaughter their food animals ceremonially are acting with a deeper moral consideration than those who let industrialized slaughter serve up unidentifiable animal parts to them via McDonald's. Even if one removes the dichotomy and simply asks the carnivore to slaughter the animals they eat, we notice a broad tension between rationally identical moral actions which differ primarily in the depth of emotional salience.
It is for this reason that I believe the appropriate ethical system will be based on a rational analysis of the consequences of our acts. The best system will also include safe guards to protect our moral judgements from the irrational influence of our emotions.

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