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Sinister Variations on the Trolley Problem

July 5, 2013, 12:00 AM

The trolley problem is this: Imagine you’ve got a train and it’s hurtling down a track.  In its path, five people are trapped on the line and cannot escape.  Fortunately, you can flick a switch, which diverts the train down a fork in that track, away from those five people, but at a price.

There is another person trapped down that fork and the train will kill them instead.  Question: Should you flick the switch? 

Now let me give you a variation on that dilemma.  Imagine just as before that you’ve got a train speeding out of control down a track and it’s going to plow into five people on the line.  But this time you are standing behind a very large stranger on a footbridge above that track.  The only way to save the people is to heave the stranger over.  He will fall to a certain death, but his considerable bulk will block the train, saving five lives.  Question: Should you flick the switch?

Actually research has been done on the kinds of people who are willing to shove the fat guy over the rails.  And what that research has uncovered is that these people tend to be utilitarians in our society.  They tend to be people who are able to get the job done, who are less morally squeamish.

Now I’ve actually presented a variation of this dilemma to various psychopaths.  I’ll give an example of what the variation of the dilemma is.  Imagine that you are a transplant surgeon.  And you have five patients all in need of a transplant: heart, lungs, whatever.  And they’re all going to die if they don’t get that transplant, but there are no matching donors available.

Just by chance, a young traveler happens to walk past your surgery one day for just a regular check-up.  And it turns out, hypothetically, that he is a direct match for all five.

Now imagine that you are the transplant surgeon.  Would it be right to kill that young traveler in order to take his five organs to transplant them into your five patients?  

Now, this is exactly like the trolley problem.  But most people would say absolutely not.  "No, that’s just not right.  It’s ethically not right to kill that person."  But I’ve given this to psychopathic killers and they’ve said, "Well actually, you know what?  Imagine if you were the families of those five guys.  One life lost, is it really that bad when you’re saving five others?  What if that guy was an evil terrorist?  And the five guys who needed to transplants were peace workers or aid workers, for instance.  Would that make it any different?"

These are the kinds of decisions that world leaders and politicians have to grapple with.  Here’s another little one to conjure with.  Imagine that you were, hypothetically, left in a room with a newborn baby.

And you were left in that room for ten minutes with that newborn baby.  And I told you – and you have to believe this is true – that that newborn baby will grow one day into Adolph Hitler.  And I told you that there would be no moral comeback, no legal comebacks on you were you to kill that baby with a pillow and walk out of that room.

Now, what would you do?  Would you kill that baby and save millions of lives further on down the line in history?  Or would you not be able to do it?  These are moral conundrums, which are kind of played out in everyday life.  I’m obviously reducing these to absurdities.  But these are the kinds of decisions on a lesser level that you have to make if you’re a politician or if you’re a world leader.

Sending anyone out into battle knowing that there’s a chance that they might not come back, committing thousands of troops to a war is something that not many people can carry lightly on their conscience.

But psychopathic traits are pretty well represented in politicians and world leaders.  Politicians and leaders have to deal with all sorts of nasty kinds of crisis during their administrations, anything from the threats from rouge states to natural disasters like hurricanes or floods.

Also, they have to be pretty confident to run for office at all.  They have to be very good at presenting themselves in a certain light.  And they have to be very persuasive and manipulative.  I mean, one senior UK politician, who should for obvious reasons remain nameless, had a great quote.  And he said to me, “You know, in politics the only way to know who’s stabbing you in the back is to see their reflection in the eyes of the person stabbing you from the front.”

That’s a great quote, which, for me, sums up that kind of snakes and ladders game.  This every man for himself, cutthroat kind of existence characterizes politics I would say probably across the board in most nations of the world.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock



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