Stupid Trolley

Joan’s Italian patio

The ethical trolley problem has interested me for some time. No doubt you know of it in some guise. You are at a railroad switch and an out-of-control train is rolling down the track. The switch is set to send the car into a siding with three people standing on the tracks, while only one person is on the other. Should you throw the switch to save three and kill just one?

Oh the hours I have wasted on the various stupidities of this scenario. But I will mention only a few. 

  • Why are you constrained? Can’t you just shout?
  • How about imperfect knowledge? The three people may have a better chance of noticing the danger and getting out of the way.
  • People are not equivalent apples. What if it is three drunken bums and one beautiful young woman? Or three old geezers and a best friend, or a baby?
  • There is a cost to involvement.  If I throw that switch, I can be sued, jailed, or hung. 
  • And one more _ although I could list hundreds _ in a real situation there is no time to think. The more you puzzle out what is right the less you can do.

And yet _ this is a standard problem often presented as profound. What is truly profound about it is how well it does demonstrate our philosophic helplessness in the face of complex reality. Unfortunately it is typical of such examples.  You might as well ponder things like “what color would you make the sky if you could make it any color.”

We need a philosophy that works when we get up in the morning, face a problem during the day, or worry at night.  Unless you inhabit a totally different reality than I do, trolleys never enter the picture.

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