Thursday, August 9, 2012

Don't Pull That Lever.....or Do

One of the most well known thought experiments in the field of ethics is the “Trolley Problem". The "Trolley Problem" sounds a lot like the plot from the movie "SPEED". It goes something like this: a madman has tied five innocent people to a trolley track. An out of control trolley car is careening toward them, and is moments away from running them over. Luckily, you can pull a lever and divert the trolley to another track. The only problem is that the madman has also tied a single person to that track. Considering the circumstances, should you pull the lever?

I think most people's initial reaction would be to say pulling the lever is the more ethical thing to do. It is my initial reaction too. By pulling the lever you have saved 5 people's lives. That must be better than allowing the 5 people to die. 

This is the classic stance of "what answer provides the greatest good for the greatest number of folks". 

There is another stance however. This stance says that it is the madman who is doing the immoral act by choosing to kill people. UNTIL you pull the lever you are removed from the ethics of the situation. Upon pulling the lever you are partially responsible for the death of the individual on track 2. Without your actions that guy lives. Your actions killed a man.

Of course there is a rebuttal to this critique of the utilitarian view point and that says by being present in this situation you are obligated to act. If you were to stand aside and do nothing, you would be decidedly doing an immoral act.

The trolley problem was first proposed by the philosopher Philippa Foot as a means of critiquing the major theories in ethical philosophy, in particular utilitarianism. From a utilitarian point of view, the obvious choice is to pull the lever, saving five and only killing one. Foot wanted to show that there are no wholly moral actions, and I believe he succeeded.

Whether it be moral or not, if I were beside the trolley tracks in our scenario I would have to pull the lever and save the most people I could, but I still understand Foot's point.

Maybe it is the statistician in me, but I can support Foot's concept. Foot's proposition questions absolute moral law. My mind can embrace a confidence interval kind of morality. We can only ever say an action is within the 95% Confidence Interval of being morally "right". 

I am by no means saying we shouldn't have to be held responsible for our actions (because "How can I be held accountable? No one can be truly sure what actual "right" is" is a BS stance) or anything of the sort. I am a supporter of laws written in specific terms that must be adhered to strictly. Civilized society can't function with arbitrary rules. But it is interesting to think about how we determine "right" from "wrong" in essence.

We all have consciences. We use our individual consciences millions upon millions of times. Every single day we are faced with choices that affect ourselves, and/or those people, places and things around us. The results of these choices can  have drastic ramifications and consequences. Our actions during these moral conflicts not only affect our future but also they define us. 

Since these decisions define us we want to make sure we decide wisely. Therefore we use our greatest moral instrument, our conscience. We use our consciences as our moral compasses. But much like a compass, our consciences can only guide us. If you are truly lost, it will likely take more than a compass alone to get you out of the woods.

One doesn't have to look too hard to discover horrible atrocities that people have caused throughout history by acting in accordance with their consciences. 

Conversely, there are very few moral ideas that strictly apply to all people in all situations.

So where does that leave us?

It reminds me of my post from the other day about love, magnetism, and 2 halves of a bird (it's a long story. if ya wanna read in full it's here:
In that post I just spoke about how I believe some parts of science are not simply unknown but unknowable. 

The "Trolley Problem" makes me think morality may be similar. No. I don't think morality deals with other dimensions as I do forces of nature (like magnetism and the like). I just mean maybe the true essence of "rightness" may be altogether unknowable to us. 

We aren't allowed contact with "rightness" directly. We must use all our facilities to approximate.
We use our moral compass/conscience/minds/hearts collectively to decide what action will put us within the Confidence Interval of "Right" (with an acceptable level of significance). 

This was more of a thought experiment than a proclamation of morality really.

I just like thinking about things like these.

Matter of fact I think I'm gonna lay down right here and rest my head upon this track.



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