October 9, 2010

"I’m not clever at all. I have a certain insight into philosophy, I think. But I’m not clever, I don’t find complicated arguments easy to follow."

Said the philosopher Philippa Foot, who has just died at the age of 90. (She's one of those people, like, supposedly, Shakespeare, who died on their birthday.)

Foot originated the famous trolley problem (in an essay called "The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect"). In the hypothetical, a runaway trolley continuing along the rails will hit 5 people who are working on the track. Should you actively divert the trolley onto a track where it will proceed to hit just one person? If you say yes, then should we favor killing a person to get 5 organs that can be used to save 5 lives?

Here's a PDF of the essay.

57 comments:

Ignorance is Bliss said...

So was she an organ donor?

traditionalguy said...

So she was a sophist. Sophists are fun, but of no practical use beyond entertainment until they become boring.

Methadras said...

The trolley scenario is stupid. She reduces people to nothing more than a living organ farm for other peoples uses. The ultimate commoditization. And for the record I am not nor will I be an organ donor.

AST said...

She doesn't sound very clever.

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"The trolley scenario is stupid."

Here's one: A Planned Parenthood abortionist will vaccuum 1,000 black children from their mother's wombs in the next few months. Should we save those 1,000 black kids by harvesting the doctor's organs in order to save the five people run over by Philippa's imaginary train?

Discuss.

It's ironic that philosophers think they have to make up stupid and unlikley scenarios in order to invent 5 people "about to die" - when our government pays Planned Parenthood millions of dollars each year to kill hundreds of thousands of black children.

edutcher said...

I've noticed philosophers usually make assumptions and conditions so their ideas work. Possibly because trying them in the real world as it exists hits so many obstacles.

AST said...

Here's an interesting article about the original Sophists

Skyler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dust Bunny Queen said...

The doctrine of the double effect is an algorithm for solving all moral disputes in which an act will have two effects, one good and the other bad. The doctrine says, roughly, that it is always wrong to do a bad act intentionally in order to bring about good consequences, but that it is sometimes permissible to do a
good act despite knowing that it will bring about bad consequences


Wut?

What if I want to do a bad act intentionally to bring about bad consequences....or maybe just because I want to be bad. Is that OK?

Doing a good act on purpose that you know will bring about bad consequences makes it a good act or ....wait does it make it a bad act....or maybe a good and bad at the same time act.

If it is a good act that brings about bad things, then how can it BE a good act.

Plus...who is defining what is good or bad.

This woman is delusional...and frankly I'm glad she is dead and not soon enough.

Her entire thinking process makes me thing about Democrats/welfare/broken families/crack babies/decaying inner cities and further destruction of decent ways of living.

She would have been more productive to the human race if she had learned a new way to make socks.

Ambrose said...

It must really suck to die on your birthday.

rcocean said...

I was going to write a detailed response to the "Trolley Problem" but then realized I'm not in school anymore and just want to have fun.

Plus, I no longer care about "philosophy" - or Ms. Foot. I think as you get older you tire of these wordy word games - you just want the executive summary with a few power point slides.

So, not having read the "trolley problem" but seeing that the New York Times likes it, I assume it somehow attacks the Catholic Church and supports abortion on demand.

Did I guess right?

lumiere said...

Contrary to some of the above comments, the trolley problem is indeed relevant to all sorts of scenarios. For example, assume for a moment that a group of hijackers has taken over an airplane. The hijackers have threatened to ram the plane into a government building. Is it morally permissible to shoot that plane down before the act can be carried out? On what basis? Would it matter if the plane were hijacked on a Sunday night when most government buildings are empty or on a Monday morning when the building is full? Further, suppose the plane that has been hijacked is full of 8th graders returning from a trip to visit Washington DC. Suppose further that one of those children is related to you. Does that change the calculus? Would the calculus change if the plane were simply a UPS transit plane and the only ones who would be killed would be the pilot and the co-pilot? That, in essence, is the trolley problem.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

@ lumiere.

If you spend all your time vapor locked over all that bullshit you just threw against the wall nothing gets done and everyone dies.

Make a decision and move on it. Make it quickly and be decisive.

Or else sit and navel gaze while life goes on around you and life goes on WITHOUT you.

Dust Bunny Queen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rcocean said...

The problem Lumiere is like most "Philosophical Problems" your example/assumptions cannot be translated into the real world. If hijacker X threatened to crash a jet Y into Building Z, we would wait until it looked like they were really going to crash into Building Z and then we'd shoot them down. Why? Because, everyone on the plane would die anyway, and because we don't want the hijackers to accomplish their mission and thereby encourage future hijackers.

The Musket said...

Every act has consequences, some intended, some unintended. The consequences count. Pay more attention to the consequences than the intent, consequences are more important than intent.

A hijacked plane is on target to incinerate a building -- thankfully the Americans on board Flight 93 were heroes that day! In the future -- remember the consequences. Plane crashes into building, huge explosion, everyone dies. Plane gets shot down, everyone dies. Same consequence.

Seven Machos said...

That's so stupid.

Is some monstrous death scene immediately about to occur where you have to make a rash decision that could save some lives but not others? If so -- and the likelihood that this event will occur in your life are infinitesimal -- then, yes, you should act if it's feasible.

If people are just living their normal lives, which is what is happening virtually all the time, then, no, you should not kill someone and harvest their organs to further the lives of anyone.

Alleged philosophical problems like these are boring.

Bruce Hayden said...

For example, assume for a moment that a group of hijackers has taken over an airplane. The hijackers have threatened to ram the plane into a government building. Is it morally permissible to shoot that plane down before the act can be carried out? On what basis? Would it matter if the plane were hijacked on a Sunday night when most government buildings are empty or on a Monday morning when the building is full?

I think that you would first have to define what department or agency would be destroyed. I would think that there would be agencies where it would be advantageous to destroy the building without the government employees present, and others where it would be advantageous to destroy them too.

This is somewhat a kin to the beggar scenario. Or, really, the targeted killings that the CIA is now engaged in. Can it be morally justified to kill a known terrorist leader, given that he is likely to kill innocents?

Hopefully, everyone here knows that I am being a bit facetious with the government employees. Cabinet members, and maybe members of Congress on the other hand...

Blair said...

I feel somehow insulted by the attacks on philosophy here in the comments. This is not a dilemma in a vacuum, it has huge ramifications for how we construct our morality. I happen to think there is nothing more important in life than how we make day to day ethical decisions. (one could even ask "What Would Jesus Do?!" It's an interesting thought)

Essentially people don't want to discuss the dilemma, or dismiss it, because it scares them and they can't answer the question. Well that is a cop out. I'm not saying I know the answer, but that doesn't mean the question ain't important. Quite the opposite.

I also don't think it is a politically loaded question. Most philosophical questions aren't. Seeking the truth is, I would hope, an apolitical exercise. We may not like the answer we come to, of course, but that does not mean it is not a true answer.

If you want to label the trolley scenario as absurd, at least make an attempt to rebut it properly.

My partial answer is that different lives have different value, and perhaps one can weigh them individually on that basis according to the circumstance?

Bruce Hayden said...

In the end though, the article really didn't say much about the morality of abortion, except in the most extreme cases. It almost never, any more, comes down to a question of the mother's life or the child's life, but rather, the child's life versus the mother's convenience.

Not growing up in a Jesuit environment, I cannot say that killing the child for the mother's life is wrong, or that the opposite is wrong either. In an earlier time, when each child was important for the community, and we didn't face over crowding, then that would have to, I think be taken into account. But balancing that would be the fact that the mother dying might significantly reduce the probability that her other children survive. And, at that time, the chance of children living until they could reproduce was significantly lower than it is today.

But today, a true dilemma like this is extraordinarily rare when it comes to abortion. Medicine has advanced to the point that in most cases, if either can be saved through sacrificing the other, they can be saved without the sacrifice.

blake said...

"Why didn't we think of that?

"I think our minds must be too highly trained, Magicthise."

Bruce Hayden said...

My partial answer is that different lives have different value, and perhaps one can weigh them individually on that basis according to the circumstance?

But who is to make that decision?

Should we give the mother the right to make this decision in the case of abortion, when she is, invariably, the most biased of anyone involved, in the results of the decision?

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me add that I am usually fairly ambivalent when it comes to abortion. I am just reacting a bit to the threads on feminism where the definition of that term seems to require a certain view on abortion.

Bruce Hayden said...

Actually, I did think that it was a thought provoking article, and I did enjoy it. So, thanks Ann, for the post and link.

John Lynch said...

The trouble is that everyone has some ancestor who turned out bad. So what? If they hadn't lived, none of us would be here.

Even if someone's life can somehow be predicted with 100% accuracy, what about their descendants? Can we say that they would not have lives worth living?

Also, by saying that a child born into bad circumstances won't have a good life, aren't we saying that the people living in those circumstances now have lives that are a waste?

This argument never made sense for me.

Maguro said...

Essentially people don't want to discuss the dilemma, or dismiss it, because it scares them and they can't answer the question.

No, what's wrong with the Trolley Problem and most other philosophical questions is that they're so narrowly defined and unrealistic. Either you do nothing and the 5 people die or you flip a switch and one person dies. There are no other options and no questions about the probability of the trolley stopping before it kills anyone, the relative likelihood of people getting out of the way depending on which track you choose, etc. That's why most philosophical questions are kind of boring to discuss, there's not much of a conection to reality.

bagoh20 said...

I don't think it's a stupid question at all, because it really challenges my values, and I can't resolve the conundrum.

I would not advocate killing an innocent to use his organs to save 5 others, but I can't justify why not. It identifies for me the demarcation of my values and causes them to break down without making me want to adjust them at all. I think that's fascinating.

It's not at all outside the real world. Thousands die every year for lack of organs - and there are plenty of organs. That's indefensible it seems, yet hardly anybody would be willing to fix it.

I would prefer to use the death penalty on murderers and use their organs. I would have no problem with that at all.

The scary thing is the slippery slope, and we don't want to create that dystopia, because we usually imagine the killing more vividly than the lives saved and all that entails.

As a man who currently enjoys the miraculous benefits of a fine 4 pound woman's liver, I would ask you all of you to be organ donors. You can let the maggots have it, or someone who may worship your gift and become a living testimony to your wisdom. It won't cost you a thing, and I promise it won't hurt.

God bless the donors. It's likely the most wonderful, helpful and productive single act most people will ever do in their entire lives, yet anyone can do it and it's effortless. It a unique choice, only recently made possible.

Like the hero who dives on the hand grenade, but you get to do it after you're already dead and therefore sacrifice nothing. Don't pass up your chance to do what you otherwise could never accomplish. The opportunity for you and the recipient of your organ is truly miraculous.

John Lynch said...

It's easy for me. You can't kill people just to save others with no other justification. There's a morality beyond simple utilitarianism. Who you're killing and what they are doing matter. For example, most people would approve of killing in self-defense even though we're trading one life for another.

It's a continuum, like everything else. For some things at some times, you can sacrifice some for the rest. At other times you can't.

There isn't a simple rule that works for every case.

Seven Machos said...

There really is a simple rule that works for everything: treat other people the way you want to be treated.

That rule, considered, provides all the depth we need to resolve every single one of these dumb hypotheticals.

Yes, if a plane is about to smash into a building, which would surely cause the death of the people in it, then it's good to shoot it down. We can all agree that we'd do that to each other.

Yes, if some trolley is going to kill some people and we can't stop it, we can all agree that we should act to kill the fewest people possible. That is what we would all want done to each other.

These disaster scenarios prove nothing. They're boring, trite, and profoundly shallow. The people who propagate them should be ashamed of their rank amateurism.

jaed said...

@DBQ: "What if I want to do a bad act intentionally to bring about bad consequences....or maybe just because I want to be bad. Is that OK?"

The explanation of the doctrine of double effect that you quote is, erm, not very coherent. The fact that the action has two different effects - one good and one bad - is the part that's critical.

Here's maybe a better example: someone is dying and has intractable pain. You give them lots of morphine. This does two things, one good, one bad: it controls the pain and it risks killing them sooner. The doctrine of double effect says giving more morphine is OK if your purpose is to control the pain (and suppressing the person's breathing is an unavoidable side effect), but not OK if your purpose is to kill the person (with the unavoidable side effect of making them more comfortable).

If the action has both good and bad consequences that can't be separated and are of similar magnitude, the idea is that whether the action is moral depends on your purpose in doing it.

Oligonicella said...

The correct answer to someone attempting to get you to respond to a Trolly scenario, particularly one in which such detail has been infused as to make it virtually impossible for you to defend any decision is "Fuck you."

Youngblood said...

rcocean wrote:

"The problem Lumiere is like most 'Philosophical Problems' your example/assumptions cannot be translated into the real world."

Bullshit.

A hardcore terrorist is holed up in a safehouse in a village. He has evaded capture repeatedly in the past.

The closest assets are two F-16s carrying 500 lb bombs. Giving the order to drop the bombs will kill a handful of innocent people. Not giving that order will allow the terrorist to escape. This terrorist has killed many, and he will certainly kill many more innocents.

According to the doctrine of the double effect, which Foot argues against in her essay, it is not permissible to drop the bombs. The only moral course is not to act.

Foot's trolley problem would map onto that real life situation pretty closely.

This situation played out in the real world several years ago, when US forces received intelligence that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was at a safehouse meeting with members of his family, including one of his children.

Two innocent children were killed in the attack.

That's what the trolley problem looks like in real life.

Bob_R said...

The point of the trolley problem (and I guess all of philosophy) is to force us to articulate the differences between simple (and yes overly simplified) situations. This is an important human effort and probably its greatest product is the rule of law - the idea that everyone from princes to paupers must obey the same set of explicitly articulated laws. (See NYT, it's not that hard.)

Putting aside the lazy comments (it's hard, it's boring) the more interesting anti-philosophy arguments are that those that argue that rationalism isn't really the right tool for the job of understanding human morality.

The double effect doctrine has always seemed to me a clear example of oversimplification - of assuming there is a neat rational framework when one exists. It starts with the premise that we can say "act A is good with some bad consequences" and "Act B is bad with some good consequences." Sorry, no. You are already acknowledging that calling these acts "good" and "bad" is incorrect and prejudicial. Foot's essay is an attempt to add another layer of sophistication (overly appropriate term here) to the doctrine. Still seem to be a doctrine that only works to rationalize decisions that you are comfortable with rather than clarifying decisions you are struggling with.

traditionalguy said...

Obama's Bus Problem: If the Britain and USA's people live a prosperous and powerful existence, then the undeveloped world's people will be worked to death as serfs robbed of their resources. Is it good to destroy all wealth and prosperity in Britain and the USA so that the rest of the world can stare at their resources while they die of stupidity? The answer of course is that for a Massive Fee paid to the Con Man, Sophist, Marxist Obama there will a short delay before the Bus comes back and runs over you. YOU MUST CHOSE AMONG THOSE TWO OPTIONS ONLY. While you ponder the choice, Obama will be at the golf course.

bearing said...

Thanks for linking to the essay. I'm familiar with the doctrine of double effect, and had heard of the trolley problem, but never read any writing by Ms. Foot.

Very crisp and clear writing.

I really wonder if the folks who are raising objections like "the trolley scenario is stupid" have taken the time to read it. On reading it, I found it fairly obvious how widely applicable is the analogy.

I'm an engineer by training. I appreciate the utility of a *model* (a simplified system in which the basic principles are at work but non-essential details are removed or altered to clarify the actions under study).

But I can see how someone not used to models might protest "But the real world isn't LIKE that!" and insist there is nothing to be learned.

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"The hijackers have threatened to ram the plane into a government building. Is it morally permissible to shoot that plane down before the act can be carried out?"

Of course not!

Just because terrorists have threatened to do something does not mean they are either capable - or willing - to follow through on such a threat.

And so the certainty that they will crash the plane into the government building and cause the deaths of more than the occupants of the aircraft is not sufficiently established to authorize a shoot-down of the aircraft.

Witness United Flight 91: Terrorists were actively attempting to do exactly what you suggest. Shooting down that aircraft would have been a tragedy - because there was a good chance that the passengers might have overtaken the hostages and landed the aircraft safely.

They were ultimately unable to get control of the aircraft ... but equally, the terrorists were unable to crash their aircraft into a government building and so shooting it down was not only unnecessary ... it would have eliminated any chance the passengers had of surviving.

This scenario is not even difficult philosophically.

Skyler said...

Waterbag wrote: "I would not advocate killing an innocent to use his organs to save 5 others, but I can't justify why not. "

How morally vacuous can you be?

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"The closest assets are two F-16s carrying 500 lb bombs. Giving the order to drop the bombs will kill a handful of innocent people. Not giving that order will allow the terrorist to escape."

In the real world, we are never presented with such scenarios ... there are always other options. Merely having 500lb bombs being the "closest" assets doesn't mean they are the ONLY assets available. It just means they are the closest assets.

Also, dropping bombs is no guarantee they'll hit their target. Even if they hit the target, the terrorist might still live to kill again. And even if the terrorist escapes capture today, he may be killed in a different way tomorrow (by a sniper, for example) before he has an opportunity to kill again.

And so you've presented false and limited assumptions - proving the point that simplistic philosophical questions cannot be translated into real life.

Lucien said...

As a former student(all too long ago)of Professor Foot I am saddened by her passing, and somewhat disappointed to see the extent that she is remembered with so much reference to a single problem, given that length of her career, and her thoughtfulness in general.

But it seems to me that good problems and models, and sometimes experiments, can be good not because of how accurately they reproduce the real world, but because of how much they can reveal about situations by focusing only on basic characteristics of the situations.

The danger of taking too much stock in such problems can be seen by thinking of various "ticking time-bomb" scenarios under which normal, decent people can be drawn to believe that it may sometimes be permissible, rather than evil, to torture one's enemies in order to save one's friends.

traditionalguy said...

Bearing...I hope or no group or family decides that you are a non-essential detail when they brilliantly solve their problems via scapegoating you. Attacks from sophist SOBs are the reason why lawyers and Juries are the only guardians of safe society. Philosophers will change their tune every few years for money.

Sixty Grit said...

Yeah, sure, but suppose instead of a "trolley" she used a light rail car - how very up-to-date and green she would seem!

WV: exating - we will all be exating the world, just not necessarily runned over by a danged ol' train.

Class factotum said...

I would not advocate killing an innocent to use his organs to save 5 others, but I can't justify why not.

Because every human life is an end in itself and should never be a means to an end.

You have to go with Kant over utilitarianism when it comes to human life.

Kev said...

It must really suck to die on your birthday.

This happened to a former student of mine a couple of months ago; he died of a heart attack in Army boot camp on his 19th birthday. I'm sure that, considering the extensive physicals done by the military, this was from a condition that was totally hidden until the unfortunate moment.

bagoh20 said...

"Waterbag wrote: "I would not advocate killing an innocent to use his organs to save 5 others, but I can't justify why not. "

How morally vacuous can you be?"


That is the question.

The decision is to kill one or five. It's that simple. That's the outcome. You don't avoid the consequences by claiming superiority, nor do your victims.

bearing said...

traditionalguy: "Bearing...I hope or no group or family decides that you are a non-essential detail when they brilliantly solve their problems via scapegoating you. "

Right... because constructing a model thought experiment in which non-essential details are stripped away to reveal the bare essentials of a dilemma, is exactly the same as scapegoating a real person in a real situation.

Brilliant.

Would you like a refresher on the meaning of "model?"

blake said...

That's what the trolley problem looks like in real life.

Actually, there's a whole lot missing from that problem. Isn't it the case that we often have to resort to bombs because the prior decision was made that we're not allowed to assassinate directly?

Dust Bunny Queen said...

someone is dying and has intractable pain. You give them lots of morphine. This does two things, one good, one bad: it controls the pain and it risks killing them sooner. The doctrine of double effect says giving more morphine is OK if your purpose is to control the pain (and suppressing the person's breathing is an unavoidable side effect), but not OK if your purpose is to kill the person (with the unavoidable side effect of making them more comfortable).

If the action has both good and bad consequences that can't be separated and are of similar magnitude, the idea is that whether the action is moral depends on your purpose in doing it.


I think I would ask the person what THEY wanted.

If they want to OD on morphine then I would administer it. If they wanted to suffer, that would be their choice. It would be terribly hard to participate in either choice, but it would not be my decision.

My purpose would not exist.

One of my family members is in fact going through this exact scenario right now.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

The thing about the Trolley Problem and other such mental masturbation exercises is as Maguro said. There are more choices. These problems are usually stated in an either or scenario.

There could be many other solutions to the problem than the two choices given. That is my main annoyance with these philsophical exercises. Too narrow.

That being said. Would I kill one person to save 5? I don't know. Who are the people? Maybe they are 'fated' to die. Should I interfere?

And....I am an organ donor. Not that my old organs are worth all that much.

bagoh20 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bagoh20 said...

This is like the question: Would you kill Hitler as a baby, or his mother if you could go back in time? It's a very tough question, and I have not seen here a good argument for why not, other than it's just not right. But, why not?

It seems to me that most sanctioned killing of innocents is exactly like this: to save others. We have just become much more comfortable with it in situations like war.

It's not a stupid question, it is one of the central ones.

Youngblood said...

"Actually, there's a whole lot missing from that problem. Isn't it the case that we often have to resort to bombs because the prior decision was made that we're not allowed to assassinate directly?"

In the case of situations such as the bombing of Libya and various missile strikes and airstrikes in the 20th century, yes -- we choose bombing because we refuse to assassinate leaders directly.

In the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (and other terrorists), such restrictions aren't in place. The Predator drone program is one of targeted assassinations.

We don't assassinate the leaders of nations, but we have no qualms about assassinating terrorists.

Youngblood said...

"In the real world, we are never presented with such scenarios ... there are always other options. Merely having 500lb bombs being the 'closest' assets doesn't mean they are the ONLY assets available. It just means they are the closest assets."

Right. Except that "closest" in this case meant "capable of taking advantage of the intelligence received".

Terrorists are pretty good at the whole "not staying in one place for very long" thing. When I said that the F-16s were the closest assets, I meant that they were the only things capable of doing the job.

"Also, dropping bombs is no guarantee they'll hit their target. Even if they hit the target, the terrorist might still live to kill again. And even if the terrorist escapes capture today, he may be killed in a different way tomorrow (by a sniper, for example) before he has an opportunity to kill again."

And, in his safehouse, he might have slipped on a banana peel and cracked his head on the corner of a table!

Why bother acting at all?!

You're simply offering a nihilistic and poorly reasoned rationale for inaction.

"And so you've presented false and limited assumptions - proving the point that simplistic philosophical questions cannot be translated into real life."

No. I presented a real life situation in which the only two realistic action were bombing al-Zarqawi and killing innocents or not bombing al-Zarqawi and letting him get away.

The choice was a simple one.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Just last week I was presented with this "dilemma", but in a slightly different form:
[Famous philosophy prof] from Harvard wants to know how you would answer this question: "a runaway trolley continuing along the rails will hit 5 people who are working on the track. Should you actively divert the trolley onto a track where it will proceed to hit just one person?"
[Person from That School Just Down The Charles] says: Hell's bells - solve the problem by STOPPING THE TROLLEY!

WV: logessin - humorous guesswork, like a few other answers to the question

AST said...

Which is better, to try to stop an accidental death or to vapor lock over the philosophical issues until the opportunity to do anything is gone?

Revenant said...

Because every human life is an end in itself and should never be a means to an end.

In reality, though, people do treat each other as means to an end. We couldn't have taxes or war if people didn't.

The Crack Emcee said...

I have never gravitated toward the clever, or tried to be myself. It resides too far below "smart" - and too close to cynical - to be attractive.

Derivatives sprang from the mind of someone attempting to be clever.

Largo said...

The problem with the trolley problem, in using it for anything more than an intuition pump, is that dependance on hard cased makes for bad philosophy as well as bad law.

It is possible one could encounter a real problem devoid of context, but even in the "lifeboat" probem, is there admiralty law that would apply? (If I remember right, it was noted that under British law, lots would be drawn.)

To try to do philosophy of ethics in such cases while ignoring philosophy of law is... well... not very productive.