Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Fat Man and the Trolley

Why do some philosophical thought experiments just seem so unreal?

This piece asks:
[A] runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track where it will kill five people. You are standing on a bridge above the track and, aware of the imminent disaster, you decide to jump on the track to block the trolley car. Although you will die, the five people will be saved.

Just before your leap, you realise that you are too light to stop the trolley. Next to you, a fat man is standing on the very edge of the bridge. He would certainly block the trolley, although he would undoubtedly die from the impact. A small nudge and he would fall right onto the track below. No one would ever know. Should you push him?
So just before you leap you get a flashback of all the stodgy meals left uneaten and you either cease to exist or become an amnesiac or repress it so much that you fail to know, in any meaningful sense, what you did. How else to understand "No one would ever know". Oh, possibly that should be "No one [else] would ever know"?

Does turning philosophical thought experiments into opinion polls make them more relevant? It probably cuts through the crap often cited that "everyone, without hesitation, would do option A (whatever option A is)" where option A is often just a rationalisation of the prejudices of the writer.
One major flaw with thought experiments, especially in ethics, is that they are rarely tested on people. The sample size is minuscule. The philosopher will simply assume that most people think that one option is right (or wrong).
Quantifying a non random sample of a population will tell you little more than the split of opinions across a society at a particular moment. It will do litle to prove the universal applicability of any moral imperative.

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