The experiment begins like this: Imagine it’s a lovely day out, and you decide to go for a walk along the trolley tracks that crisscross your town. As you walk, you hear a trolley behind you, and you step away from the tracks. But as the trolley gets closer, you hear the sounds of panic — the five people on board are shouting for help. The trolley’s brakes have gone out, and it’s gathering speed. You find that you just happen to be standing next to a side track that veers into a sand pit, potentially providing safety for the trolley’s five passengers. All you have to do is pull a hand lever to switch the tracks, and you’ll save the five people. Sounds easy, right? But there’s a problem. Along this offshoot of track leading to the sandpit stands a man who is totally unaware of the trolley’s problem and the action you’re considering. There’s no time to warn him. So by pulling the lever and guiding the trolley to safety, you’ll save the five passengers. But you’ll kill the man. What do you do?
That’s the moral dilemma, called the “Trolley Problem”, posed by a team of Michigan State University researchers in a first-of-its-kind study published in the research journal Emotion. Research participants were put in a three dimensional setting and given the power to kill one person (in this case, a realistic digital character) to save five.
The result? About 90 percent of the participants pulled the hand lever to reroute the trolley, suggesting people are willing to violate a moral rule if it means minimizing harm. “What we found is that the rule of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ can be overcome by considerations of the greater good,” said Carlos David Navarrete, lead researcher on the project. Of the 147 participants, 133 (or 90.5 percent) pulled the switch to divert the trolley, resulting in the death of the one innocent man. Fourteen participants allowed the trolley to kill the five passengers, 11 participants did not pull the switch, while three pulled the switch but then returned it to its original position.
Consider another, similar dilemma. You’re walking along the track again, you notice the trolley is out of control, although this time there is no auxiliary track. But there is a man within arm’s reach, between you and the track. He’s large enough to stop the runaway trolley. You can save the five people on the trolley by pushing him onto the tracks, stopping the out-of-control vehicle, but you’ll kill the man by using him to stop the trolley. Again, what do you do?
This one is a slightly different version of the original “Trolley Problem” and is called the “Fat Man Problem”. Funny as it sounds, this problem has a major distinction to the problem before, even though on the surface, the consequences of both actions are the same: one person dies, five survive. Therefore the result we expect for both experiments should also be the same. But most people, when asked which of the two actions is permissible — pulling the lever or pushing the man onto the tracks — say that the former is permissible, the latter is forbidden. Why is one wrong and another possibly allowable when both result in death?
An explanation for this difference is given by the Doctrine of Double Effect, which was introduced by St. Thomas Aquinas in the late 13th century. This doctrine says that for an act to be morally permissible, it has to fit certain criteria. First of all, the outcome has to be a good one. Both examples in the trolley problem have that — five people survive a terrible accident. Secondly, the outcome has to be at least as important as the action taken. Both examples cover that, too — five lives outweigh one. Thirdly, the action can’t be taken for the purposes of evil, even if it does result in beneficial good. In other words, you can’t pull the lever just because you want to kill the man standing in front of the sand pit. Lastly, the good effect has to be produced by the action taken, not by the bad effect. And here we reach the reason why pulling the switch is preferable to pushing the man onto the tracks. By pulling the lever, we are taking an action that indirectly results in the death of the man on the track. In the second example, we are intentionally pushing the man to his death. Although five people’s lives will still be saved, according to Aquinas (and to many philosophers), an evil act never justifies a greater good.
This idea brings me to the “Dirty Hands Problem” we discussed in class. In both cases the criteria for Dirty Hands are met if the person pulling the handle does something bad in order to do something good. And obviously politicians have to deal with this problem all the time. But the results of the experiments reveal a distinction between killing a person and letting a person die. If we apply this idea to politicians and their version of the Dirty Hands Problem, we can see that many politicians probably would change their decisions when they were forced to do the dirty work on their own, instead of letting other people do it. Maybe the politicians are personally too unaffected from the consequences of their decisions and not accountable for them, so that they unnecessarily engage in too many Dirty Hands cases. What do you think? Would there be more cases of “Dirty Hands” if politicians where more related and concerned with the consequences of their actions and what would you do if you were the person who has to pull the lever?
To have a better understanding of how the experiment conducted by the Michigan State University looks like and for people who want a visual presentation of the “Trolley Problem” visit http://www.cdnresearch.net/vr.htmland and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fs0E69krO_Q