Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Railway Tunnel

So, a little philosophical research. I'm curious what people think is the right thing to do in this case. Read the story carefully, figure out what you think the right decision is, and post it in comments. If you think it over and you're totally undecided, post that too, and if you need something to be clarified, please ask and I'll post it at the bottom. I'd like to get as many comments as I can, so feel free to post even if twenty or more people already have. Try not to be swayed by other people's opinions. I'll explain what the significance of the case is later.
You look uphill into a very long railway tunnel and see five men working in the middle of it. You see two of them stand up, hearing something at the far end of the tunnel. “It’s a train!” one of them shouts. “Run!”

The train appears in the distance, outside the far entrance of the tunnel. Next to you, there is a button on the wall that you can push to collapse the scaffolding that is over the far entrance. You can’t see the scaffolding, since it’s on the other side of the tunnel, but an indicator beside the button tells you that one man is working on it. You know that if you push the button, that man will fall to his death and his body will stop the train from going into the tunnel. Whether you push the button or not, you’re safe, since you’re outside the bottom of the tunnel and you can easily move aside.

You see the five workmen, now running down the tunnel as fast as they can. You know that they cannot get out. They are too much far from you, and the train will speed up as it goes down the steep slope.

There was an accident like this many years ago. The bodies of the men in that accident were crushed so badly that they were unrecognizable. You know that each of the five men you see in the tunnel will meet the same fate unless you push the button.

Do you push the button?

[Clarification: Assume that the train is empty. (Maybe it was poorly secured and rolled down the hill.) The only people affected in the situation are the people on the scaffolding or in the tunnel.]


Seymour said...

Yes. I trade one life for five. It is in the greater good. And I'd need therapy for a long time over the guilt I'd feel - but I think I'd do it.

Matt said...

No. I find this kind of question endlessly frustrating, so I won't wade into the reasoning, but my answer is no.

BruceMcF said...

Is this what has been made of the once strong American regulatory system, after a similar accident years ago they installed an actual kill a man and use him to stop the train "dead man" switch.

Fracking typical Reagan Revolution solution to the lack of proper rail signaling infrastructure.

Cleveland Bob said...

My answer is no.

We don't know how many people are on the train itself many of whom will surely perish if you push the button.

Sparing potentially hundreds of lives is the price of those lost five men.

Anonymous said...

Well, since we're playing hypotheticals, here's what I'd do: pick up the damn walkie-talkie and tell the guy on the scaffolding to get the hell off pronto, because I'm pushing the button in 3, 2, 1.

What, there's no walkie-talkie? I mean, in addition to the complete lack of warning systems that led to the train running on the track in the first place? In addition to the lack of any other effective means of stopping the train? In addition to a lack of ability to communicate directly with the train? In addition to the tunnel which somehow doesn't have cubby-holes or isn't wide enough for a train to pass through with room for workmen to press themselves against the wall of the tunnel? In addition to the workmen being so careless that they have no other means of escape than their own feet?

What kind of half-assed hypothetical is this, anyway? If I want philosophical "conundrums" like this one, I'll listen Alan Dershowitz go on about ticking bomb/torture scenarios. Those are better thought out.


Stentor said...

I'd push it. I'm curious what you're looking for with this -- I'm not seeing anything that makes it meaningfully different from the standard "push the fat man in front of the train" version of the trolley problem (unless it's that the guy on the scaffolding here isn't fat ...).

Or maybe your experiment is to see how few people are willing to actually accept the parameters of the hypothetical and give an answer rather than rejecting the whole scenario, thus calling into question the reliability of research that forces people to say "yes" or "no" and treats the results as revealing something significant about moral intuition.

Anonymous said...

Stentor, that's an insightful observation, and on review it seems like where Neil is going with this one. However, if the purpose is indeed to demonstrate the impulse to reject the parameters of the hypothetical, then it would be helpful if the hypothetical weren't so vulnerable to rejection. In other words, the temptation to reject the entire hypothetical increases as its recognizability decreases. As narrative creatures, I think that we struggle against faulty narrative as much as we struggle against being forced into "yes" or "no" boxes.


Greg said...

I would question whether the button actually does what it says.

On the face of it, yes, I would push the button to save the five lives.

corvus said...

Funny. I have heard this one, or one like it, before. And actually, I was thinking about it while on the way home today, in relation to some recent political question. It's the classic Kantian vs. Utilitarian scenario, isn't it?

I push the bottom, and hate myself for the rest of my life. If I don't push the bottom, I will still hate myself for the rest of my life, but four more people will still be alive. Both choices are a form of action, and I am damned either way.

However, if I know the person on the scaffolding, I probably freeze and not make a choice until it doesn't matter anymore.

John said...

No. I would not push the button. One life versus five lives is not much of a difference. The worker on the scaffold presumably has friends and family members who would mourn the loss, and possibly dependents to support, just as the workers inside the tunnel do. Who am I to decide who lives and who dies?

That said, I find the hypothetical highly unlikely in the contemporary world. What kind of construction company agrees to work in a tunnel without being able to notify approaching trains that they are present, or having a way to receive adequate warning?

Also, how do I know that the approaching train has no passengers? And if I know that, why don't the construction workers know that the train is coming when there is still time to get out?

Aaron said...

I'd say one difference from the scenario Stentor brought up is that the button removes the directness of the action. There is something easier about pushing a button than pushing a person.

My answer would likely in reality be that of Corvus when s/he knows the person, but for me it would be whether I knew the person or not.

In the world of theory and the abstract, yes, I push the button, because inaction is still an active choice.

matt w said...

The point is to describe the scenario in more agonizing detail than the usual presentation of the philosophy thought-experiment, isn't it? Usually you get a barebones presentation with probably a jolly fat joke (ha ha!) about the guy whose body is going to stop the train. I think Neil is trying to get us to imagine it more vividly.

I call a foul, though; you stipulate that the guy's body is going to stop the train, not that the scaffolding will. But it's far more plausible that the scaffolding will, and some philosophers think that that makes a difference. (Note that if it has to be the guy's body, what C.S. says doesn't make any sense; but if it's the guy's body, why doesn't the train stop when it hits the first guy in the tunnel? Well, I suppose it's accelerating. Still.)

John Rove said...

If you don't push the button you are not responsible for the outcome. Hence you would probably feel better about yourself if you let the five die.

Joe said...

How can the train be empty? Even if it's not a passenger train, there's the engineer. Conductor? I dunno, the person driving it.

Anyhow, assuming that away, and assuming away the possibility that I know any of these people -- what I do is subject to change if I'm friends with some of them; I'm not sure if what I think is "right" is also subject to change -- it's easy for me. Push the button. One life versus five, it's pretty simple math.

(Actually, I'd like to know what's on the train. Would that affect what I would actually do? No. But if in the hypo we have perfect knowledge, it's possible that at some level of value wrecking the train becomes a factor along with those six people -- e.g., if it's a train full of the only known source of the cure for AIDS.)

Daniel Ahkiam said...

Well, since there's no people on the train I guess it's a GIANT FREAKING ROBOT!!! In which case stopping the evil death train (even if it takes all 7 of our bodies) is an end unto itself. Humanity is at stake.

Anyway, within the intended confines of the hypothetical, I think I would push the button.

Anna said...

I not only think that I would feel better if I let the five die instead of affirmatively killing the one, I think they're normatively different. I would not push the button. Perhaps I've been brainwashed by the legal distinction between "nonfeasance" and "misfeasance," or by our culture's emphasis on individual rights. On reflection, though, this distinction and emphasis also just resonate with me for "veil of ignorance"/ do unto others reasons.

Of course the hypothetical assumes the peculiarity of perfect information, but within very narrow constraints (i.e. only about outcome within the next few minutes). Taking this out of the realm of philosophical exercise, I think I'd make the same choice not to push the button for the additional reason that it's hard to eradicate contingency. Will the five actually live? Will the one actually die? Will the scaffold really stop the train? Does the one have fewer repercussions (i.e. no child depending solely on him) than the five? I think those kinds of doubts are additional reasons not to play hero in a way that seems certain to endanger someone other than yourself. A suicide dash into the tunnel to try futilely to save someone doesn't seem as culpable to me, even though it's odds-on outcome would be the loss of six lives instead of five or one.

I'd be more likely just to dedicate myself to affirmative assistance to the survivors, and I don't think I'd feel horrible about it (though lingering doubts about bad choices are probably inevitable, and healthy). Pass better legislation for train safety. Donate money to the families. Run in after after the train has passed and see if you can administer ad hoc first aid. Believing that moral agency in a situation could ever be limited to pushing a button causes more problems than it solves, IMHO.

Petey said...

"if the purpose is indeed to demonstrate the impulse to reject the parameters of the hypothetical, then it would be helpful if the hypothetical weren't so vulnerable to rejection. In other words, the temptation to reject the entire hypothetical increases as its recognizability decreases. As narrative creatures, I think that we struggle against faulty narrative as much as we struggle against being forced into "yes" or "no" boxes."



Obviously, I'd push the button, assuming there isn't some trickery in the scenario that I'm not sussing.

If the scenario is simply "will you do something that trades one life for five equivalent lives," obviously, I'd do that.


I will say that I'm glad Neil posed the scenario, since reading the comments of folks who wouldn't do it since they don't want the blood on their hands has provided me with my creepy sensation of the day.

Folks who think like that are essentially faulty humans.

Single creepiest comment on the thread:

"One life versus five lives is not much of a difference."

drip said...

I would definitely push a man in front of a trolley to save 5, but I don't know about this. So much can go wrong. Will the body stop the train? Will the guy on the scaffold survive if I don't push the button? If I do push the button? Will one of the 5 outrun the train? Will the train stop? Isn't the driver in the best position to do something? By the time I sort through what I know and what I'm sure of the train is probably in the tunnel.

Christopher M. Park said...

On the one hand, expending one life to save five seems like it would make sense. This is certainly military thinking, and if I were a general I would almost certainly do this in combat times.

However, soldiers sign up for things knowing the risks, while these six men were just doing their jobs, not expecting death to be part of the equation. They have not put their lives in my hands, so it seems it would be murder to kill the one man.

Who is the man on the scaffolding? How can I judge what he or his future progeny might contribute to society, versus the other five men? From an evolutionary sense, how could I choose which genetic paths it makes the most sense to close off? Without an impossible volume of information and foresight, there would be no way to say.

The last consideration I have is that I am not imminently bound up in this. In other words, I was not the cause of this conundrum, nor am I directly affected by it. So from a moral or karmic sense, murdering one man -- even if it saves five others -- seems like a pretty bad thing for me personally. Plus, what of the psychological damage to myself, knowing I had killed a man; and the damage to the saved men, knowing that a man had died to save them? This sort of anguish would be present in no one if the train simply kills the five men, an accident that no one could predict or reasonably prevent.

At first I was really on the fence about this one, but after consideration I've now strongly come around to the position that my answer is no. As a bystander, it is not my moral right to make decisions like that.

Spavis said...

Real life isn't a hypothetical. you could simplify the though experiment into a simple "kill one to save 5" question an many people will do it. But A real railway worker who knows all 6 guys, who wouldn't know with certainty whether the body/scaffolding would stop the train, who would have a paralyzingly visceral & moral reaction... none of us can put ourselves in their place. In the abstract I'd like to take the rational approach, but if it were really me... I don't think I could.

dr said...

My considered view is that there is a genuine moral dilemma here (or, if not here, then in a similar case with the numbers juggled), in the sense that whatever one does, one will have wronged someone.

I think we would expect a foreman or similar officer to press the button, because such a person would be charged with looking out for the welfare of all, and this would be an arrangement that all six workers understood and (one hopes) accepted. I think this expectation acts as an intuition pump in cases like the present, where no such arrangement exists.

Ron E. said...

Yes, I'd push the button given that the only information I had was what is presented in the scenario (i.e. no walkie-talkies, certainty that the guy on the scaffolding's body would actually stop the train, certainty that there was no other way for the 5 in the tunnel to survive other than pressing the button). 5 lives > 1 life. Pretty easy mathematics. See also: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Amanda Marcotte said...

I'd push the button. But I'm an outlier. I also think I'd push the fat man in the more classic version of this, putting me in the 10%. That said, the one about smothering a baby to save a village gets me. I assume most people would do it in the moment, but I can't say that I would during a hypothetical.

FearItself said...

What if one of the guys in the tunnel is a member of an al Qaeda sleeper cell who knows the location of a ticking time bomb that's going to go off in an hour? Don't we need him to get out of the tunnel alive so we can tie him down and waterboard him to get that information and save thousands of lives?

What if the guy on the bridge is David Vitter? Or Nelson Mandela? Or Alex Rodriguez?

I hate this kind of question. I know it sounds like I'm trolling, but I have a point: ethical action only has meaning in real-world experience. I don't think you can meaningfully inquire about people's ethics by first asking them to put themselves in a hypothetical situation where they have impossible levels of certainty about the future and about the consequences of different actions. What you end up studying is the ethics of action in an imaginary world, which are different from (and trivial compared to) real-world ethics.

It's like trying to calculate a billiards shot using only Euclidean geometry; you can get an answer, but if you ignore the effects of physics (elasticity of the balls, friction, rotational inertia) the ball is not going to drop into the pocket. Since your goal is to win my 20 bucks, why waste your time puzzling over the geometry of the shot on paper?