Friday, February 17, 2012

The Trolley Problem

Copyright Nintendo
There is a school of thought called ethics, which deals in moral standards and such of human beings.  Within this basis, there is a thought experiment called the Trolley Problem.  Herewith the experiment from Wikipedia:

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose aeroplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both the exchange is supposed to be one man's life for the lives of five.

There are a few variations (ranging from pushing a villain in front of the trolley to stop it and having the one person be your own mother), but they are all based off this one.

What makes this so interesting is that it is a dilemma in total.  There is no right answer.  Either you kill one person or you kill five people.  Regardless, you kill someone.

So the question is, do you choose the lesser of two evils, or do you stand back and watch it happen.  Someone said once, all that is needed for the world to end up in chaos (or evil, or something of the sort) is for good men to stand by and do nothing.

There is a movie called Unthinkable that deals with another dilemma called the ticking time bomb.  In the thought experiment, a hypothetic terrorist has planted a bomb which will kill thousands of people and he has been captured.  The question is, can he be tortured so that thousands of lives can be spared?  I.e. can you commit evil to prevent greater evil?

In the movie,


the specialist interrogator eventually calls in the terrorist’s small children and threatens to torture them in order to get the location of the bomb.  In the end, the FBI agent calls the torture off, even though the possibility of a last bomb is probable.  Thus, she chooses to avoid committing an evil to prevent a greater evil.


In this moral dilemma, what would you do?  No matter how many times I think about it, I don’t know how to solve the trolley problem, because I can’t sacrifice the one person.  What is the right answer?  Is there one?

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