Thursday, February 12, 2009

Confessions Of A Renegade Trolleyologist

Thanks to everyone who responded to the railway tunnel post. Unless I'm being entirely confused by time zone issues, the volume of responses has slowed down. So I might as well come out and explain what was going on.

As Stentor pointed out, this problem is structurally very similar to the 'fat man' case in the trolley problem literature:
a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
According to Marc Hauser's data, only 10% of people are willing to push the fat man.

It seems to me that people will always imagine the death of the fat man in the above scenario more vividly than they'll imagine the deaths of the five people on the track. There are a couple reasons for this. For one thing, there's direct physical contact with the fat man in that case (though apparently Hauser has gotten similar results from cases involving less direct contact). There's also the way that deciding to push the fat man forces us to imagine all the intermediate steps between our action and its intended goal, raising lots of negative emotions. When we contemplate doing nothing in the fat man case, however, we aren't forced by the nature of deliberation to imagine anything in particular. So the same violent negative emotions don't arise.

Sort of like matt w said in comments, my example tried to correct for this by thrusting the (gruesome) deaths of the five workmen in your face, so you couldn't escape vividly imagining their predicament. At the same time, it put the guy whose body would block the train at a distance and out of view. Judging from the responses in comments, a majority of the people would push the button to make the guy on the scaffolding fall down. Even if this is a somewhat weirdly collected sample in some respects, this is a lot more than Hauser's 10%.

The larger point I'm hoping to make with this example is that many of the factors that drive people towards deontology may arise from how the structure of deliberation forces us to imagine different harms with different vividness, rather than from genuine moral convictions in support of deontology. This plays into an argument against deontology. Differentially vivid imagination is implicated in lots of irrational behavior -- for example, I think it explains why people fail to delay gratification, choosing smaller pleasures presented vividly before them at great long-term cost. Insofar as I can explain the appeal of deontology in terms of how the structure of deliberation keeps us from imagining all outcomes with equal vividness, I can argue that deontological constraints are based on something irrational, and that we should accordingly diminish their significance in moral theory.

Anyway, the deadline for submitting papers to December's American Philosophical Association meeting is Feb. 15, so it's time for me to cram out a short paper on this stuff. Thanks again to all who helped.


TIm said...

I've never liked the "pushing a fat man" example. I think it adds too much uncertainty in people's minds as far as whether it will actually work -- ie. will the fat man stop the train and save the other lives? I don't think it's comparable to the "throwing a switch" question because of that uncertainty.

It might not account for the entire discrepancy between people who would throw the switch and would not push the fat man, but I think there's enough uncertainty there to question the results.

It's kind of like asking in a poll question "If the election were held today, would you vote for Senator Barack Obama or Hero John McCain?" You can't trust the results.

Unknown said...

I've listened to all I can take from Senator Mitch McConnell and his cronies, so I decided to answer them with this video.

dr said...

I think you and Hume are probably right that our intuitions in these sorts of cases are affected by how vividly we picture the potential victims.

Years ago, when I first arrived in grad school, I thought that what I would end up doing would largely be playing with these such cases. Turned out that my interests are more meta and methodological.

At any rate, I've lately been thinking about this method of doing applied ethics, and also about a rival method (maybe call it 'the new casuistry') which uses real cases (most commonly drawn from the proceedings of hospital ethics boards, but there is no reason in principle that casuists can't look at cases from other domains). Both methods, it seems to me, are vulnerable to what John Quiggen has called moral arbitrage. I could go on, but my thoughts on this are only about half formed.

Anyway, the paper you contemplate seems to address a methodological worry that we might have with the use of these cases, but a worry that seems resolvable through careful specification of the case. I'm curious whether you have anything generally to say about the methodology implied (explicitly or otherwise) by the use of these cases within applied ethics.

Anonymous said...

Neil, did you look at any of the rest of the experimental philosophy literature on this topic, or just at Hauser's work?

Anonymous said...

I just posted a comment on the initial thread (I'm catching up on a backlog on my RSS feed, that's why I'm so late to the discussion). The argument I made there is simply this; once you offer up a hypothetical situation, especially an unrealistic one, you're no longer studying ethics. Real events have an "eventness" to them that uniquely engages us as moral actors, and imagination, no matter how vivid, is an inadequate substitute (in part, because we know we're imagining).

Anonymous said...

As I said in the comments in the original thread -- and which FearItself placed in a more concise manner here -- I don't think you're really measuring what you think you're measuring. This is due in large part to the unbelievability of the hypothetical proposed, which causes more heel-digging than the trollwy/fat-man scenario, which for all its faults was monumentally simpler than the one you propose.

Looking over the responses on the original thread, what I'm struck with is not the number of people who chose to push the button, but the number of folks who tinkered with the hypothetical in order to not push the button. This, I think, is invited by the complexity and unbelievability of the scenario. And ultimately, it's more interesting than confirming or rejecting Hauser's work, because it provides a jumping-off point for exploring how we relate to moral hypotheticals like this. It's about how we work things out -- rather than the static moral construct you and Hauser presuppose.

So, anyway, it's too bad you're more interested in the boring question than the interesting one.


Anonymous said...

FWIW to the extent you're attempting to collect comparative data, I was one of the "yes, hit the button" responses to the original hypo, and my response is the same for fat man: push him in front of the train (given all the usual/same caveats, perfect knowledge about outcomes, etc.). The deontological move just strikes me as a cop-out when you're going to cause a certain number of deaths by "not" taking a certain action as well as by taking that action.

Another way to explain the discrepancy might be: the blogosphere is self-selecting, and maybe particularly for people who read liberal blogs.

Neil Sinhababu said...

"it provides a jumping-off point for exploring how we relate to moral hypotheticals like this"

C.S., that's basically what I'm doing here. I'm just taking a small piece of it at a time -- the vivid imagination piece.