Would You Kill the Fat Man?

Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong

David Edmonds
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Would You Kill the Fat Man?
    Book Description:

    A runaway train is racing toward five men who are tied to the track. Unless the train is stopped, it will inevitably kill all five men. You are standing on a footbridge looking down on the unfolding disaster. However, a fat man, a stranger, is standing next to you: if you push him off the bridge, he will topple onto the line and, although he will die, his chunky body will stop the train, saving five lives. Would you kill the fat man?

    The question may seem bizarre. But it's one variation of a puzzle that has baffled moral philosophers for almost half a century and that more recently has come to preoccupy neuroscientists, psychologists, and other thinkers as well. In this book, David Edmonds, coauthor of the best-selling Wittgenstein's Poker, tells the riveting story of why and how philosophers have struggled with this ethical dilemma, sometimes called the trolley problem. In the process, he provides an entertaining and informative tour through the history of moral philosophy. Most people feel it's wrong to kill the fat man. But why? After all, in taking one life you could save five. As Edmonds shows, answering the question is far more complex--and important--than it first appears. In fact, how we answer it tells us a great deal about right and wrong.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4838-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. xiii-xiv)

    This book is going to leave in its wake a litter of corpses and a trail of blood. Only one animal will suffer within its pages, but many humans will die. They will be mostly blameless victims caught up in bizarre circumstances. A heavyset man may or may not topple from a footbridge.

    Fortunately, almost all these fatalities are fictional. However, the thought experiments are designed to test our moral intuitions, to help us develop moral principles and thus to be of some practical use in a world in which real choices have to be made, and real people get...

  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. PART 1 Philosophy and the Trolley
    • CHAPTER 1 Churchill’s Dilemma
      (pp. 3-7)

      At 4:13 A.M. on June 13, 1944, there was an explosion in a lettuce patch twenty-five miles south-east of London.

      Britain had been at war for five years, but this marked the beginning of a new torment for the inhabitants of the capital, one that would last several months and cost thousands of lives. The Germans called their flying bomb Vergeltungswaffe—retaliation weapon. The first V1 merely destroyed edible plants, but there were nine other missiles of vengeance that night, and they had more deadly effect.

      Londoners prided themselves on—and had to some extent mythologized—their fortitude during the...

    • CHAPTER 2 Spur of the Moment
      (pp. 8-12)

      A man is standing by the side of a track when he sees a runaway train hurtling toward him: clearly the brakes have failed. Ahead are five people, tied to the track. If the man does nothing, the five will be run over and killed. Luckily he is next to a signal switch: turning this switch will send the out-of-control train down a side track, a spur, just ahead of him. Alas, there’s a snag: on the spur he spots one person tied to the track: changing direction will inevitably result in this person being killed. What should he do?...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Founding Mothers
      (pp. 13-25)

      Philippa (Pip to her friends) Foot, the George Stephenson of trolleyology, believed there was a right answer (and so, logically, also a wrong one) to her train dilemma.

      Foot was born in 1920 and, like so many of her contemporaries, her ethical outlook was molded by the violence of World War II. But when she began to teach philosophy at Oxford University in 1947, “subjectivism” still had a lingering and, to her mind, pernicious hold on academia.

      Subjectivism maintains that there are no objective moral truths. Before World War II it had been given intellectual ballast by a group of...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Seventh Son of Count Landulf
      (pp. 26-34)

      The seventh son of Count Landulf was born near Naples in the early part of the year 1225. The boy, Thomas, displayed exceptional intellectual gifts. He also showed considerable moral integrity. In his view, two of the highest virtues were fortitude and temperance, qualities he possessed in abundance. To his family’s fury he determined to become a Dominican friar rather than the Benedictine monk they had planned. Benedictine monks have little interaction with the world. The Dominicans believed not in living behind secluded cloisters, but in traveling and preaching and spreading the word, surviving on charity. At one stage, in...

    • CHAPTER 5 Fat Man, Loop, and Lazy Susan
      (pp. 35-43)

      Philippa Foot set trolleyology rolling, but it was Judith Jarvis Thomson, a philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who delivered its most high-voltage jolt. Struck by Foot’s thought experiment she responded with not one but two influential articles on what she labeled “The Trolley Problem.”¹

      The first article included many thought experiments of her own, involving, in order, the imaginary Alfred, Bert, Charles, David, Frank, George, Harry, and Irving, all faced with life-and-death decisions Thus Alfred, who hates his wife, puts cleaning fluid in her coffee, killing her, while Burt, who also hates his wife, sees her putting cleaning...

    • CHAPTER 6 Ticking Clocks and the Sage of Königsberg
      (pp. 44-56)

      An eleven-year-old boy has been kidnapped. He was last seen getting off the Number 35 bus on his way home on the final school day before the autumn holiday. He’s now been missing for three days and is considered to be in mortal danger. The police have arrested the chief suspect. He was captured after picking up a ransom of one million Euros. The ransom had been demanded in a note left on the gate of the boy’s home—and had been dropped, as agreed, at a trolley stop on a Sunday night. Instead of releasing the boy, the man...

    • CHAPTER 7 Paving the Road to Hell
      (pp. 57-68)

      In mid-1894, Grover Cleveland had personal and public preoccupations on his mind. There was concern about his health and suspicion that he had a malignant tumor. More happily, his family was expanding. His young wife had eight months earlier given birth to a second child, Esther, the only presidential child to this day to be born in the White House itself (Esther would eventually move to England, where her daughter Philippa, would grow up). Meanwhile, seven hundred miles away, in Chicago, the president had a looming and very public trolley problem: an industrial relations crisis that threatened the economic and...

    • CHAPTER 8 Morals by Numbers
      (pp. 69-84)

      Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) requested in his will that his cadaver be dissected for scientific research. He was friendly with many of the founders of University College, part of London University, where his Auto-Icon, as he called it, can still be seen. His skeleton was preserved. The stuffed body has a wax head with piercing blue eyes, crowned with a fetching wide-brimmed hat: the real head, which kept being pinched by student pranksters, is now under lock and key. One legend, that in the past the Auto-Icon was wheeled out for college governing meetings, where it was registered as “present...

  7. PART 2 Experiments and the Trolley
    • CHAPTER 9 Out of the Armchair
      (pp. 87-93)

      The traditional caricature of the fusty philosopher seats him in a very specific item of furniture. His profound thoughts emerge from a sedentary position, but he is not on a stool, bench, rocking chair, sofa, chaise-lounge or — God forbid — bean-bag or deck chair (although, as it happens, Wittgenstein inflicted deck chairs on his students who came to his spartan Cambridge room). No, the philosopher sits in an armchair: it’s no doubt comfortably deep, and a little frayed at the edges, and there’s room on the armrest to balance a book and a smudgy glass of sherry.

      It’s this image that...

    • CHAPTER 10 It Just Feels Wrong
      (pp. 94-107)

      Here’s a trolley problem from famous Professor Robert Unger Joaching. It’s pouring rain. A man is crossing the railway track, protecting himself with an umbrella. Given where he is, it would be prudent of him to pay more attention, but he’s in a hurry and so doesn’t spot a train racing toward him. It crashes into him at such speed and with such force that he is killed instantly and bits of his body go hurtling through the air. One large chunk hits a woman waiting on the platform, causing her severe injury. The question for the philosophy and law...

    • CHAPTER 11 Dudley’s Choice and the Moral Instinct
      (pp. 108-124)

      In Tokyo, blowing your nose loudly in public is considered the height of vulgarity. From culture to culture, practices of burping, belching, farting, spitting, body-scratching, bottom-wiping, lip-smacking, bowing, shaking hands, holding hands, food chewing, soup slurping, nail-biting, tooth-picking, and kissing vary widely. In parts of France, a couple of friends might greet each other with two cheek pecks: in some suburbs of Paris, four has become the norm—four more than is perhaps advisable in Riyadh.

      Etiquette and manners encompass innumerable aspects of life: table manners, body language, dress code, facial hair, tipping and haggling, styles of exchanging gifts, ways...

  8. PART 3 Mind and Brain and the Trolley
    • CHAPTER 12 The Irrational Animal
      (pp. 127-134)

      When it comes to the Fat Man, the philosopher wants to know the answer to a moral question: should we push him to the great beyond? The philosopher is interested in normative (value) questions—such as, how should we lead our lives?

      Can the scientist help? The scientist, here, is broadly defined to include the psychologist and the neuroscientist. Typically the scientist is interested in different, non-normative, questions. Why do we give the answers we give? How do we reach our judgments? What influences our behavior? The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume (1711–1776), insisted that there was a distinction...

    • CHAPTER 13 Wrestling with Neurons
      (pp. 135-152)

      “You stand here in the dock, accused of killing a fat man. How do you plead?”

      “Guilty, m’Lord. But in mitigation, my choice, my action, was determined by my brain, not by me.”

      “Your brain decides nothing. You decide. I sentence you to impudence and ten years of hard philosophy.”

      In the past decade there has been an explosion of research into all aspects of the brain, driven by improvements in scanning technology. MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans have yielded intriguing results. The scanners work by detecting minute variations in blood flow: when a particular part of the brain is...

    • CHAPTER 14 Bionic Trolley
      (pp. 153-166)

      If Jeremy Bentham ruled the world he would encourage the toppling of fat men over footbridges, where this sacrifice was necessary for the greater good. But ordinary folk can’t bring themselves to push the fat man. Ordinary folk don’t believe that their primary obligation is to maximize happiness; they believe that there are constraints on their behavior, such as a prohibition on harming innocent individuals. Even if they were persuaded by Jeremy Bentham, and did push the fat man, they’d probably feel terrible remorse afterward: perhaps they’d suffer flashbacks and nightmares. Bentham would no doubt regard any guilt or regret...

  9. PART 4 The Trolley and Its Critics
    • CHAPTER 15 A Streetcar Named Backfire
      (pp. 169-174)

      That was a dismissive comment of an excellent philosopher, approached to discuss trolleyology.¹ “It’s symptomatic of a disease in moral philosophy,” moaned another.

      Some moral philosophers devote their lives to trolley-type dilemmas. Many more cite trolleyology in lectures and seminars and instruct their students to read at least part of the trolley literature. But trolleyology turns the grey matter of other philosophers red. They would like to shunt the trolleys into a remote retirement depot. Philippa Foot is held unwittingly responsible for creating a Frankensteinian monster.

      The fear and loathing are worth trying to understand.

      It cannot be a suspicion...

    • CHAPTER 16 The Terminal
      (pp. 175-182)

      After Hurricane Katrina flattened parts of New Orleans in 2005, one member of the National Guard was quoted as saying: “I would be looking at a family of two on one roof and maybe a family of six on another roof, and I would have to make a decision who to rescue.”¹

      Residents of Bangkok would later have some special empathy with this predicament. In 2011, the Chao Phraya, a river that meanders through the Thai capital, Bangkok, became dangerously swollen, reaching more than three meters above its normal level. Floods that summer had already cost hundreds of lives. In...

  10. Appendix Ten Trolleys: A Rerun
    (pp. 183-192)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 193-204)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-212)
  13. Index
    (pp. 213-220)