West Point trolleyology

I blogged about the doctrine of double effect at the beginning of last year. It comes up just about any time there’s mention of the morality of warfare, and here it is in a piece by David Edmonds, writing for Prospect, on the popularity of trolley problems. Edmonds reports that West Point cadets engage in tutored discussions on ethics (this is actually something I’d heard about before). Double effect and trolley problems come up in these discussions. The cadets interviewed by Edmonds are unanimous in saying that it’s wrong to push the fat man off the bridge but OK to switch the trolley onto the spur. This – the cadets say – is because pushing the fat man intends the death of the fat man, whereas switching the trolley involves no intention to kill the lone person tied to the track of the spur. Likewise – according to the cadets – it’s wrong to intentionally target civilians (like Al Qaeda does) but OK to carry out a bombing in which civilians might be killed as – yes – collateral damage.

I’m not going to attempt to dissect double effect again. It does, though, disturb me that trolley problems seem to have carved out some sort of justificatory pattern in the minds of West Point cadets. Double effect considerations might explain why certain people give certain answers to certain trolley problems (apparently most people think it’s OK to switch the trolley onto the spur). Trolley problems as a set of thought experiments might help to explain why we make the ethical decisions that we do in fact make. However, I don’t see that worked out answers to trolley problems are therefore adequate guides to action. If you’re a military person tasked with dropping bombs on targets of opportunity, the plane you’re piloting (or directing) is not a trolley and there isn’t anyone tied to the track; there is no track. Trolley problems are highly stipulated; real life usually presents additional options. Likewise with many double effect characterisations. We’re not required to operate as though the use of JDAMs were an institution, such that the only moral problem concerns targetting. This is part of what I was trying to get at before.

Update: More – much more – on trolley problems here and here.

3 thoughts on “West Point trolleyology

  1. This is because pushing the fat man intends the death of the fat man, whereas switching the trolley – it’s claimed – involves no intention to kill the lone person tied to the track of the spur.

    This is a rationalization not the reason.

    It seems to me that it comes down to deciding who rather deserves to die. Lacking any further information, we assume that whoever has come into danger contributed to it.

    Tell people that the fat man is cheering the trolley on and some will push.
    Tell them that the people tied to the tracks are victims of an extortionist and the fat man is on the sex offenders list and most will push.

  2. The doctrine of double effect that includes intent is Catholic in the same sense that pity is Catholic. Both are concerned with the emotions of the actor only, not the victim or the starving poor. Someone once remarked that Mother Theresa followed the morality of the 12th century Church in maintaining that the wretched of the earth were here so that the great could learn the nobility of pity.

    The use of trolley problems for “research”[sic] in philosophy as opposed to human psychology, is nil. LIke the poor in the eyes of the old church, the “intuitions” of the other are ignored. Ask the fat man if he sees a moral difference between being killed by hand or by push-button. Ask the man about to be executed if he sees a moral difference between the guillotine, the garrote, and someone’s fingers. The difference is physical and thus emotional proximity; and that’s the only thing that had any effect on the actors in Milgram’s experiments.

    The “intuitions” given in response to versions of the trolley problem are identical to the “intuitions” that allow me cry over the death of my lover, while merely offering condolences to you over yours.
    I’m told Montesquieu covered that one.

    The only thing interesting in the article was that conservatives made no distinction between “Tyrone Payton” and “Chip Ellsworth III”, while liberals were more willing to give Chip a push. For whatever reason, that was amusing.

    Also of course every military officer in battle makes the equivalent of trolley problem distinctions. The military is run by the numbers. But officers and enlisted men are not allowed to “fraternize”. You can not order your friends into battle. Again the rule: proximity.

  3. I dunno, my first thought was that, in the time I needed to figure out how to switch the track and give the required muscle to do it (if it’s like the ones in my town, where the driver has to get out and turn a giant key), I could have pulled all five people off the tracks by their arms and legs. Why isn’t that an option?

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