Thought Experiments and the Trolley Problem

I mentioned in an earlier piece that thought experiments can be useful in figuring out our world.  They’re not enough to base a scientific theory on, but for day to day thought, they’re very useful.  Or at least they can be.

The trolley problem is a famous one.  There are many variations, but the central question is if a trolley is speeding towards five people stuck on the track, and you can save them by either redirecting the trolley towards one person, or knocking a big fat guy in front of it, would you do so?  Then there are variations. What if those five people are terminally ill.  What if the one guy you need to sacrifice is a murderer.  Is there a difference between physically pushing someone and pulling a lever.  The questions go on and on.  I’m pretty sure this is a staple of college ethics courses.  And it really pisses me off.

First off, what’s a trolley?  Honestly.  I’ve heard that word applied to two things.  One is a little cart people sell coffee and candy off of.  I doubt one of those could hurt any one.  The other is a train-like thing that moves slowly along city streets, which can’t be blocked by any one person, and anyone mobile can easily get out of the way of one.  And, given that it’s on a city street, there probably are no convenient switches to get it out of the way of even an immobile person.  This question, as written, applies to exactly zero situations.  Which is annoying because the ideas it’s trying to get at do apply to many, many situations that we can discuss that are far more relevant.

Here’s an alternative.  Let’s say there’s a natural disaster that has blocked access to an area.  The hospital is overwhelmed by victims of the disaster, and they’re doing their best, but there just aren’t enough resources to save everyone.  A particularly badly injured victim comes in, who happens to be a medical professional.  You might be able to save that new victim, but then five other people will die as a result of the lack of resources.  What do you do?  What if that victim is a nurse in training?  What if it’s a mid-wife?  What if it’s your wife?  What if it’s the president?  I haven’t heard that problem applied nearly as often as the trolley problem, because while the trolley problem was designed to have no right answer, the hospital problem does have ways of answering it.  In the hospital problem you need to figure out how to save as many lives as possible, then follow the plan.  You know you won’t be able to save everyone, and your plan might not be optimal, but you follow it because it’s better than nothing.  The hospital triage problem is a very real one we will have to deal with as long as we have hospitals, and it’s far more useful to think about and figure out.  You have to make decisions knowing that some are going to die as a result, and you hope that it’s the minimum amount.

There’s another famous one.  The prisoner’s dilemma.  This is really the same question as the triage problem, just from a different point of view.  There are many variations, all of which can and do happen.  This is long enough, and I’m not going to rehash the details of it here, but the gist of it states that if everyone is rational and self-interested, ultimately everyone gets screwed.  Which is a problem, because generally we assume rationality and self-interest is a good thing, and most people are rational most of the time.  Which brings us back to Trump.

Trump is an actor who can be counted on to be irrational.  He changes everything.  And I’m going to expand on how in a later post.


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