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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Trolley Man Cometh

Have been talking about the Trolley Problem. I find it very much like the Ticking-Bomb Problem.
In the Ticking-Bomb Problem, we had a moral situation where many people - I think including Alan Dershovitz - argued that we should be morally justified to use torture to elicit the exact location of the ticking bomb from the terrorist before the bomb goes off, killing quite a few people.
The whole thing is choreographed like Die Hard, but a lot of people take it seriously as a moral argument.

The Trolley Problem is similar to me in that it is a goofy language and imagination game of hypotheticals.

First, let us read about the Trolley Problem.

The Huffington Post
Behind the Absurd Popularity of Trolley Problem Memes
06/01/2016 07:15 pm ET | Updated Jul 05, 2016
The internet is no stranger to sudden bursts of popularity. From the hundreds of millions of views of Rebecca Black’s Friday to the million of fans of the science-based stick figure cartoon XKCD, we’re quite used to seeing sudden inexplicable jumps in popularity. Nonetheless, it it is still quite surprising to see the explosive growth of Trolley Problem Memes, a page built around variations of a simple ethical thought experiment, little known outside the corridors of academic philosophy.

The basic set-up: There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. What do you do?

Sounds pretty simple, right? But what if you add a twist? What if, instead of pressing a lever, you had to push a fat man down a bridge in the hopes of stopping a trolley? What if the situation is probabilistic instead of deterministic? What if you could combine questions of epistemology or metaphysics to a seemingly straightforward question of ethics? What if you could reference philosophy, pop culture and history, and add a dash of weirdly macabre humor?

This is the premise of trolley problem memes. You’d think it’d get old really quickly, yet at almost 2 months of age and over 40,000 followers on Facebook, TPM is very much alive and kicking.

It’s difficult to overstate just how remarkable this is. As of May 31st, Trolley Problem Memes has 44,020 followers (less than 2 months after its creation). The great utilitarian John Stuart Mill has a mere 25,000 followers, while Peter Singer, arguably the single most famous ethicist today, has just 31,000 likes on Facebook. The Facebook group Utilitarianism has just over 1,000 members, while the philosophically-inclined do-gooder group “Effective Altruism“ has about 10,000. Nihilist Memes currently has more followers (763,000 likes), but nihilism has always been more popular among the jaded angsty teen crowd. To put it bluntly, the popularity of Trolley Problem Memes is simply inexplicable.

To attempt to explain the inexplicable, I had a Skype interview with Aljoša Toplak and Haris Sehic, the two young Slovenian creators of Trolley Problem Memes: ....

and so on.

I myself envisage a situation in which I push old Fatty off the bridge on day 1. However, the police do not apprehend the terrorist who tied the blokes to the trolley tracks. Thus, on day 2 there are five more of the best citizens secured to the rails.
I push Fatty #2 off the bridge.
This continues until the fifth day dawns. The police have let the terrorist slip through their fingers, there are five people on the tracks, I am on the bridge above and - inexplicably - a number of chubby guys and dolls are sauntering by, even though my face must be well-known from the evening news.

So do I kill a fifth fat person? If I do I would negate the numerical advantage, morality-wise, of killing a fewer number of people. Now if I push, the fatalities would equal 5, the same they would have equalled on day 1 had I not pushed Mr. Arbuckle off the bridge.

And I have every right to re-write the scenario. It's all imagination anyway while we are arguing about it. If there really were a trolley bearing down on a mournful pentad, would we be arguing the morality of the case?

There is a lot of this moronic simulation of reality that goes on.
I mean, anything and everything goes in these scenarios of moral, politics, and religion, whereas in reality you would be lucky to have a couple of strands of a frayed safety line to pull you out of harm's way. In real life, the Personal Flotation Devices are always stuffed away up towards the bows of the boat next to the biffy - desperately in need of flushing! - and the fire extinguishers are nowhere to be found.

How would I handle the Trolley Problem? I would react as I have been trained to do throughout my entire life history.

That's why if we draw the Trolley Problem as it would probably really, really happen as in the lower panel of the drawing below:

and I would wish that the guy at the switch had a religious upbringing, possibly had been a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout, served as a deacon at his church,  and whose most vile curse was "Jiminy crickets!"

Upbringing and Education are EVERYTHING when crunch time cometh.


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