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Fat men are actually harder to push to their deaths than philosophers assume

Robert Wright writes in The Atlantic:

In 1999, Joshua Greene—then a philosophy graduate student at Princeton, now a psychology professor at Harvard—had a very fertile idea. He took a pretty well-known philosophical thought experiment and infused it with technology in a way that turned it into a very well-known philosophical thought experiment—easily the best-known, most-pondered such mental exercise of our time. In the process, he raised doubts, in inescapably vivid form, about the rationality of human moral judgment. 

The thought experiment—called the trolley problem—has over the past few years gotten enough attention to be approaching “needs no introduction” status. But it’s not quite there, so: An out-of-control trolley is headed for five people who will surely die unless you pull a lever that diverts it onto a track where it will instead kill one person. Would you—should you—pull the lever? 

Now rewind the tape and suppose that you could avert the five deaths not by pulling a lever, but by pushing a very large man off a footbridge and onto the track, where his body would slow the train to a halt just in time to save everyone—except, of course, him. Would you do that? And, if you say yes the first time and no the second (as many people do), what’s your rationale? Isn’t it a one-for-five swap either way? 

Greene’s inspiration was to do brain scans of people while they thought about the trolley problem. The results suggested that people who refused to save five lives by pushing an innocent bystander to his death were swayed by emotional parts of their brains, whereas people who chose the more utilitarian solution—keep as many people alive as possible—showed more activity in parts of the brain associated with logical thought. 

If you put Greene’s findings in general form—human “reasoning” is sometimes more about gut feeling than about logic—they are part of a wave of behavioral-science research that in recent years has raised doubts about how much trust your brain deserves. The best-seller lists have featured such books as Predictably Irrational, by the Duke psychologist Dan Ariely, and Thinking, Fast and Slow, in which the Princeton psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman covers acres of research into humanity’s logical ineptitude.

I’ve found a pretty interesting Trolley Problem study that I’ll get to in the future, but, beforehand … Isn’t the Trolley Problem the dumbest question ever?

First, why use something as unlikely to successfully work as a human body, when you should be looking around for something more likely to slow down a trolley? You know, rather than immediately push the fat man to his death, maybe it would make more sense to enlist his help in finding and shoving something more useful into position?

Second, assuming the problem comes with some rationalization for its Moloch-like desire for human flesh, why not jump yourself? I mean, I weigh 197 pounds. That’s pretty fat (although not as fat as I used to be!).

Presumably, the question comes with some explanation for why only somebody fatter than yourself will do the trick? But, how do you know? In what universe do runaway trolleys come with a safety label that reads: “Your 197 pounds is not heavy enough. Only an NFL offensive lineman-sized fat man will do.”

Third, have you ever tried to push a fat man to his death? I don’t want to get into a lot of irrelevant details here of who tried to do what to whom and why it seemed like a good idea at the time, but let me just note for the record: It’s not really as easy as philosophers assume. 

Of all the sizes of human beings, men big enough to stop a runaway trolley are the hardest to push around. The NFL searches them out precisely because the laws of physics mean they are hard to move. So, if you tried to shove a fat man onto the tracks, he’d probably say, “Hey, knock it off.” And if you persisted, you’d probably just wind up wrestling in the dirt while the trolley zooms past.

So maybe the aversion to pushing fat men to their deaths of most people who aren’t utilitarian philosophers makes a little sense?

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Real world trolley conundrums include (but are not limited to) being prepared to risk collatoral damage using drones or special force raids to kill Jihadi leaders in the Hindu Kush.

    Nick (South Africa)

  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    It reminds me of Heinlein's comment about cannibalism: if the poor fellow is dead anyway, why not eat him? Heinlein's answer was that we do not want to live in a society in which people have acquired a taste for human flesh.

    Similarly, I do not want to live in a society in which people are in the habit of calculating whom to kill in order to achieve some higher good. Not a safe place to live at all.

    Unfortunately, I fear we do live in such a society.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  3. Perhaps we could stop that darned trolley with an utilitarian philosopher or two.

  4. Why don't we push a Harvard psychology professor in front of the trolley?

  5. Why don't we replace these dangerous old trolleys with shiny new hybrid-electric buses and save innumerable fat guys?

  6. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    O come on Steve. You're missing the point. Go with the flow. Accept the premises. It's about making moral choices not about whether you and the fat guy have time to go around looking for a keg of beer or something to dump on the tracks instead. Of course you would dump the beer first if you could.

  7. God allowed the five to be in the trolley's path. A man who'd shove another in front of the trolley is deciding another's fate for them.

  8. In other words, a normal person when presented with such a scenario, actually envisages himself in that situation, unlike a utilitarian philosopher, who quickly strips out and ignores all of the mundane considerations of real human existence in order to get to the fun theoretical dilemma at the heart of the question.

    Which actually makes the dilemma pretty useful as an example, since it tells us what decisions such people will make when they are put in positions of power and insulated from the conditions on the ground. It may partly explain why so many seemingly normal people were so willing to send trainloads of innocent people (many of them not even fat!) to the gulag or concentration camp. It was all for the greater good you see.

  9. I doubt people analyze it in a practical way like that, especially if the emotional and not logical parts of their brains are lighting up.

  10. I always have the same response to that stupid thought experiment, too. You must have listened to Greene's interview with Bob Wright. His idea about hardwired, intuitive choices versus choices you have to think about makes sense, but the Gedankenexperiment with the tram is a rotten piece of evidence. Choice one is simple and straightforward. Choice two sounds like it wouldn't work. Even if the fat man were all tied up so you could drop him with the push of a button, subway/train/tram collisions with human bodies tend to go really badly for the human. Unless I had some magical knowledge that it would work – if the fat man were cast in 10 tons of concrete, say – I would be inclined to leave the poor guy out of it.

  11. Also, Greene pays way too little attention to bonds of family, affection and tribe. If the fat man is my friend, I'm sorry about you five strangers down there, but he's not going down.

  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The point of the problem is to get people to think about moral dilemmas in the abstract, so for the most part, philosophers who work this way might have a chuckle with you at the idea of trying to push Michael Oher off a bridge, but also think it kind of comic you would bring such a quaintly concrete, everyday mindset to the problem. Why take it personally? We're just trying to draw distinctions here. Nobody's life is at stake. -Except, a lot of educated people have wound up with this as their conception of ethics.

  13. Depends on the person you'd save, and the people you'd sacrifice.

    I'd take one einstein over a million trayvons any day.

    Or one tom brady over a thousand dez bryants.

    How's that for logic?

  14. The trolley problem is a symptom of leftists' obsession with human sacrifice. Obviously someone must die to achieve the good, but which ones and how many? A Western progressive like Wright doesn't take human sacrifice as a positive good like a communist revolutionary would, but he regards it as an essentially unavoidable thing that must be addressed.

  15. How is this an interesting or original 'problem' ?

    There is no mystery at all to the difference between pushing the fat guy and pushing the lever. In the first case you get your hands dirty ie you are more 'involved' in the death of the scapegoat. People have different levels of aversion to being 'involved' in death. I would venture to guess that many men (for example)would take a logical stance and see no difference between pushing fatso and pushing the lever, whereas women would tend to the opposite.

    Making the scapegoat a fat guy is a further complicating factor and is a silly bit of misdirection unrelated to the 'problem' itself.

    Here's a more 'shocking' 'problem' for these ivory tower idiots – how many people would you allow to die in order to save your children ? The answer would be in the millions for most of us. Not shocking, not thought provoking, just an obvious fact of human life which we avoid thinking about – just like the 'trolley problem'

    The Economist loves to report on these silly studies with 'cool' names like 'The Trolley Problem'. Which is one reason I no longer purchase that garbage.

    Can we move on ?

  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The fact that the fat man is uninvolved and in no danger until you put him there (assuming, as the problem does, that he is puttable) raises both moral and legal concerns for the actor. Am I allowed to murder someone to prevent a possible accidental death of other(s)(?) is, I think, the legal concern…is it wrong to use an innocent person as a speedbump(?)is the moral one. The trolley problem makes no sense because it demands that the test subject consider the problem solely in terms of numbers, not real human experience.
    By the way, an easier version of the problem was used as part of intelligence/psych. testing back in the WWII era for new Army recruits…much simpler, it posed the question of whether it was better for the actor, as driver of an out-of-control truck with failing brakes headed downhill, to run over a little girl on the side of the road, or a group of five soldiers in the truck's path. Anyone who could not answer that correctly was assigned as kitchen help, I suppose.

  17. Using logic, wouldn't pushing 5 fat women in front of the runaway trolly do more for society?

  18. This problem should be used to teach everyone the concept of who whom.

    Who are the five and who is the one?

  19. Of course it is a dumb problem; that's what philosophy professors traffic in if they are of a certain disposition. The point of posing the problem is to induce the hapless students to submit to a clerisy. The whole exercise is malicious. Robert Wright has made his useless career by popularizing this sort of crud.

  20. Speaking as a former big fat man it may be because people kinda loathe fat people. Did they ever ask the question of pushing the fat man vs pushing a thin man or a thin woman?

  21. The trolley problem was debated at one point on Marginal Revolution, and the commentators were astute enough to come up with the objection that this situation is very, very unlikely to occur, because you would almost certainly find something else to push onto the tracks. They didn't think of jumping onto the tracks yourself, however. Its great that Steve came up with this.

    Alot of textbook problems designed to show the limits of conventional ethics and reality are fantastic. Conventional ethics and conventional morality is supposed to get people through situations in their lives they could conceivably actually encounter. You can always put together some sort of weird scenario where they don't work well. These problems don't demonstrate anything beyone that you can always put together some sort of weird situation where conventional ethical thought doesn't work well.

    However, there is an ethical distinction between diverting something that is going to happen anyway (a trolley crashes into a crowd of people) to a track where it does less damage, and actively causing a bad situation in the hopes of adverting a less bad situation sometime in the future (pushing someone in front of an out of control trolley). This is because the world is not a game of billiards where we have clairvoyant knowledge of cause and effect. There is alot of uncertainty beyond the immediate effect of an action (maybe the trolley will explode before it reaches either crowd?). So "never do x even if you think the consequences of doing x will be good" is a decent ethical rule.

  22. This guy. Peter Singer. When was it that philosphers – excuse me, "philosphers" – become blood-thirsty sickos. Do they become thus when they realize that thier entire professional lives consist of mental masturbation.

  23. Crash course for psychologists on pushing fat men off a footbridge to his death …

  24. To save five lives, provoke the burly fat man into throwing you under the train.

  25. This is the kind of quibbling psychometricians complain about when they try to give IQ tests to some third worlders, Steve

  26. NB, in our society, among the philosophical psychologist set, a fat man is ipso facto an immoral and disgusting man,* so Greene deliberately loaded his question with irrelevant yet emotionally-appealing animus against the proposed fall guy. I say that invalidates all his results.

    *If the guy is merely a mesomorph, that is still loading the question since many people fear large men and impute hostility to them. Even if that is sound from an evopsych point-of-view, there's no reason to invite trolley-problem subjects to take out their anxieties on the "very large" fall guy– the other five people loitering on the tracks are not given pejorative descriptions!

  27. Though you seem to be slightly cheeky-but-serious with this one, I like the cut of your jib here.

    The question is indeed inane. My first thought was, how can you have perfect knowledge of the outcome in advance (5 sure deaths), but only stop there? What if, of these 5 people, 3 of them are: A murderer, a serial rapist, and Bernie Madoff, just released from prison; and an ordinary office secretary with her 10 year-old son? And the single individual you would trade off for these 5 is a genome scientist who just unlocked a key sequence that shows great promise for cancer treatment (but he is an arrogant SOB who treats his subordinates poorly). Now how do you calculate your utilitarian solution? There is no “right” solution. Letting nature take its course on the five potential victims may be a net benefit to humanity or not. But even that judgement is fraught with moral/ethical implications.

  28. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    In English law, duress is no defence for murder – although it might be used as a defence for other crimes.
    So, plainly, UK law says that you must allow 5 to die rather than to deliberately take the life of one by your own wilful action.
    As long as the 'intent' to kill is there, followed by the actual act, then it's a murder, and that cannot be argued with.

  29. What impresses me is the intellectual shallowness of today's academic "philosophers." As if brain scans could be a source of moral truth. The upshot is, don't trust your gut feelings, but do let the scientists decide for you on moral (and political) questions.

  30. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I remember 1985 very well. The Bears won the NFL championship and went on to win Superbowl XX. It also debuted the fat man defense strategy with the Refrigerator Perry. If I'm not mistaken he was one of the first players to exceed 300 lbs. The story goes that in high school he had a friend working at Mickey D's who served all the expired hamberburgers. Of course, super sizing defensive linemen correlates with the rise post career dementia in pro football players. To save the NFL From going the way of boxing I think a new rule should be enforced that players cannot exceed 225 lbs. Who knows – the game may become a lot more interesting to watch.

  31. But you know, I don't think the question of whether you should jump in front of the trolley yourself is even at issue. The problem isn't asking what the maximally moral solution one could imagine is, it simply assumes that you are not willing to choose to kill yourself but you also have a weaker preference for not seeing other people die (pretty reasonable assumptions as far as that goes).

    Thought problems like this can potentially be a bit interesting, but tenuously so. I think your critique of the trolley problem gets at the point, which is that the thought experiment only works to the extent that you can realistically imagine yourself in the situation being described. For whatever reason, philosophy professors seem to struggle with distinguishing between realistic and unrealistic scenarios. cf, Dan Dennett's interview a few months ago on Bloggingheads about "intuition pumps", in which his examples of useful thought experiments seemed uncannily unmoored from reality.

  32. You are missing the Lindsey Lohan connection. Why when we read Breitbart News do we read with interest the political opinions of someone like Lindsey Lohan or other pop celebrity? It certainly isn't because we think they have something meaningful and profound to say.

    Like this fat man exercise the answer lies in the fMRI images of the brain. When we see a young woman there is a part of our brain that immediately engages in facial pattern recognition. That's how it works for strangers. But if the face is familiar an entirely different circuit lights up. That's why celebrities are celebrities. Our brain uses the circuitry that was evolved to deal with close relatives on strangers.

    No one would know any of this except that we can now look inside a working brain. There will be more such revelations in the near future. The human brain is not just a computer. Little anecdotes like this fat man story are important for that reason.


  33. Depends on the race and politics of the fat man.

    If Jewish liberal or black guy, no.

    If white conservative or nationalistic Russian, yes.

    At least among Democratic participants in the experiment.

  34. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    My immediate thought in response to the trolley problem was that of course the morally responsible choice was to sacrifice one life in order to save five. Then it occurred to me that if I were facing the same situation but the one life that needed to be sacrificed were my own, there is no way in hell those five suckers would be saved. Presumably, the fat guy would feel a similar preference to spare his own life at the cost of the lives of five strangers. So now I'm thinking I don't have the moral right to force the fat dude to sacrifice his life to save five strangers if I wouldn't sacrifice my own life to obtain the same result.

    Not sure what portion of my brain, if any, I used to puzzle that out.

  35. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Funny Steve. And an excellent satire of ankle-biters who ignore the problem to quibble about the assumption. Myself, i wouldn't shove a fat man to his death because he's innocent. If it dies, its because you killed him, not because of the trolley malfunction. The other guy, was killed by the Trolley to save the other five. And what if you killed the fat man and the Trolley kept on rolling?

  36. You weigh 197 lbs. at 6-5, or was that metaphorical?

  37. Thanks for pointing out how incredibly stupid that hypothetical is.

  38. The trolley example does not provide enough information to provide a 21st century-style analysis. Is the fat man a person of color? Is he straight or gay? Is his fatness just a cultural stereotype you’re using to justify his expendability?

    Are the people on the train track Obama voters or rednecks? Are they Hispanic Dreamers or Tea-baggers?

    How can anyone be expected to comment on this scenario without all of the relevant facts?

  39. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I've always thought that the "fat man" part was a weak link in a strong and interesting argument, but I haven't been able to come up with something better. After all, how many plausible circumstances are there where you can save the lives of innocent people over there by directly killing an innocent person over here? Aside from the "shoot him or I'll blow up the stadium" scenarios that you get in movies, how would that ever happen?

  40. Steve, you're a very fine thinker who's fighting magnificently to improve the quality of public discussion about many questions. We're lucky to have you.

    But maybe you could stick to HBD and stay away from philosophy?

    > Fat men are actually harder to push to their deaths than philosophers assume

    I thought this picture-caption was a pretty good joke – until I got half-way through your post and realized that you weren't joking.

    >maybe it would make more sense to enlist his help in finding and shoving something more useful into position?

    It's so obvious that the proposed situation allows no time for this that I'm going to assume, charitably, that you mean something different from what you're saying (you are rather given to sarcasm, after all). Perhaps you mean something like: as a general rule, cooperating in stopping runaway vehicles is a better social practice than throwing nearby people underneath them. That's the rule we should follow in general, and that's what we should pay attention to here, and forget this artificially concocted situation where cooperation is obviously ruled out.

    Or something like that. That's a lot of interpretation to put on one sentence by you, but there must be some alternative to assuming you've given the dumbest answer ever.

    >why not jump yourself? … Presumably, the question comes with some explanation for why only somebody fatter than yourself will do the trick?

    Yes, in this version of the problem you're not eligible for heroic self-sacrifice. If you can't see past the weight question, just imagine you're positioned somewhere where you can't jump onto the track, but where you can pull a lever that drops the unfortunate bystander in front of the trolley. And then it doesn't have to be a fat guy. It can be anyone – and just assume that they'll be sufficient to stop the trolley (you're worked a long time on this particular railway and you know from experience just how many people have to be squelched under a loco to stop it).

    In another variant, you do indeed give the subject the opportunity to sacrifice themselves. That puts respondents on the spot if they've previously answered, in response to other hypothetical situations, that there's a moral obligation to sacrifice one to save five.

    > So maybe the aversion to pushing fat men to their deaths of most people who aren't utilitarian philosophers makes a little sense?

    Perhaps it's because utilitarian philosophers understand and feel the aversion that they expend so many pages of argument on the issue and don't think their opponents' positions can be dismissed with a sneer.

    And do you think that non-utilitarian answers are problem-free? Perhaps you think it's clear-cut that no-one should ever be tortured – even in the ticking-bomb scenarios that we can easily imagine; that a highjacked airliner full of innocent people certainly shouldn't be shot down before it can be crashed into a city centre; that a big military offensive can't be undertaken if there's one cottage with a family in the way …

    Other people don't find them so easy and would be anguished if they ever encountered these dilemmas.

  41. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    While everything you say is true, the idea is for you to accept the assumptions in an examination of how brains make moral choices -logically or emotionally.

    The reason this is hard is not because of logical vs emotional thought but rather humans are not wired to play God, as an examination of any justice system anywhere in the world demonstrates.

    I am sure you have read of the very many articles that show fat people are more resistant to death (via disease) than thin.

  42. The entire premise does not strike me as logical as it presumes to be and is also unnecessarily gory. The first solution was to find something like a small railroad tie or branch that was more likely to slow the train down than a human body. It also made me consider who these five were compared to either of the one's to be sacrificed.

    Also remember that the fat guy has muscles conditioned by carrying excess by carrying all of that excess body weight, so don't assume he'll be a pushover. More ivory tower brilliance by those in love with their own reflection and who have likely never been in a fist fight.

  43. 197 lbs at 6'5" isn't fat at all. It's normal.

  44. Well, 6'4" not 6'5."

    And you're thinking 197 pounds is a fine weight for a broad-shouldered NBA shooting guard who is 5% body fat. Unfortuately, that's not me.

  45. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Even at 6'4", 197 lbs is not fat at all. Even if you don't have a low body fat % and aren't highly defined or muscled, at 6'4", 197 lbs isn't enough meat to make you fat. It might make you a little flabby in the midsection, since men tend to hold their weight there rather than in arms, legs, back, etc., but not fat.

  46. Did Greene really think of this first?

    Trolleys = mail robots of tomorrow

  47. couldn't you just push 2 skinny people?

  48. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    What's shocking is that the Princeton scholar has basically come up with a shoddy and unsophisticated version of the Lifeboat problem, which I remember being a topic in Junior High school.

    One reason that our Ivy League scholars might not want to discuss the Lifeboat problem is that if one thinks of the USA as a lifeboat in a sea of immigrants, extending the metaphor results in casting away most of the immigrants.

    The alternate reason for the trolley problem is to get Princeton graduates used to throwing (no Ivy league) people under the trolley without much reflection on broader issues. While your criticisms are valid, you might be overlooking the point of the Princeton intellectual exercise, do not question "The Man's" assumptions.

  49. Is this an argument for high speed rail?

  50. In English law, duress is no defence for murder – although it might be used as a defence for other crimes.
    So, plainly, UK law says that you must allow 5 to die rather than to deliberately take the life of one by your own wilful action.
    As long as the 'intent' to kill is there, followed by the actual act, then it's a murder, and that cannot be argued with.

    There isn't any "intent to kill." The intent is to divert the trolley from the five people. You'd be perfectly happy if, after being directed toward the one man, the trolley derailed and ran into the curb without hitting anyone.

    In the fat man scenario, on the other hand, you *are* intending, if not the death of the fat man, an event whose natural and expected outcome is the death of the fat man. You would *not* be perfectly happy if something diverted the path of the fat man on his way down from the bridge to the trolley track, so that he hit the curb and was not in the path of the runaway trolley.

  51. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Normally I object to the learned autism of most contemporary moral philosophy, but in this case the problem is clearly your and many of your commentators learned retardation. Inability to abstract shouldn't be a point of pride.

    Here's the beginning of another thought experiment. To explain Newton's Laws, a physicist begins "imagine a frictionless world composed of a single billiard ball sitting motionless on an infinite plane. The ball is set into motion at a constant velocity of 10 m/s . . ." Would you have your nit-picking reaction then (why 10 m/s? Is the ball stripes or solids? I've never seen an infinite plane!)? Of course not, because you and every other 3-digit IQer would understand that it is a simplification intended to show clearly some essential features (in this case, why an object set into motion stays in motion along its vector). This, despite the fact that the frictionless plane is more alien to your experience than any version of the trolley problem.

    I chose Newton because his example is very influential. Like Newton, many scientists begin with simplified, unrealistic foundations, then try to build atop that more and more complexity until we have a reasonably accurate predictive model. It doesn't always work, but that is the fault of the scientist, not some flaw in reductionism. The Trolley Problem needs to be understood in this light.

    The Trolley Problem is obviously a simplified situation. You aren't the first person to realize that. Everyone knows it, philosophers and psychologists included. The simplifications are necessary, because even small details can change people's responses dramatically. Wright and Greene talk about this in their bloggingheads talk — changing the scenario from one where you push the fat man to one where you drop him onto the tracks through a trap door by pulling a lever drives a lot of people into the sacrifice-fatty camp. But, the simplifications are ok because were left with a scenario that has, for most, a strong intuitive tug and that can be easily tweaked get different reactions. That last part is important, because by tweaking we can begin to figure out the (sometimes surprising) things that can affect moral cognition.

    Moral psychologists are interested in the responses for their own sake, and moral philosophers are interested for exactly the reasons Greene talks about — if our moral intuition can be tossed hither and tither by something so silly as whether we touch the fat man or use a trap door, should we trust our gut reaction for any moral situation? Maybe we still should, but it's deep question, and one that gives only limited support to utilitarianism.

  52. Moral psychologists are interested in the responses for their own sake, and moral philosophers are interested for exactly the reasons Greene talks about — if our moral intuition can be tossed hither and tither by someth

    How long is the subject allowed to ruminate on the question, or the dilema, in order to arrive at a "moral" decision? Or put another way, what makes us think that "moral" reasoning goes into any (many, most?) split-second decisions?

  53. I don't think that Steve is missing the point. Maybe those people "thinking emotionally" are averse to schemes that in the real world are not likely to work. The philosopher can say "just go ahead and accept the premise," but what kind of brain would evolve to make life and death decisions based on implausible assumptions?

  54. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    "I got half-way through your post and realized that you weren't joking"

    He's not joking about most of what he seems to be joking about. He resorts to sarcasm because he realizes, at some level of his trivia-addled mind, that some of what he's playing about with is deadly serious thought-crime.

  55. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    "How long is the subject allowed to ruminate on the question, or the dilema, in order to arrive at a "moral" decision? Or put another way, what makes us think that "moral" reasoning goes into any (many, most?) split-second decisions?"

    That's a great question. I'm really not sure, it might vary from experiment to experiment. My impression was that Greene is interested in both quick, split second gut decisions ("decision" seems inappropriate here, since in that timeframe you don't even really consider alternatives, you just act) and slower, more considered intellectual decisions, especially when one's answer differs between the two.

    I don't know how experimenters conceptualizer all this — philosophers are important in this debate not only because moral psych touches on their traditional turf, but also because the terminology is so imprecise that you can have different researchers using the same terms in different, even incompatible or incoherent ways. Philosophy has focused on adjudicating those issues since at least the rise of logical positivism in the 1920s.

    My own way of looking at it would be merely to focus on how people act/decide in situations that are considered morally fraught by the community, even if the subject is a ideologue who doesn't think it's a very tough decision. I would for the moment leave as an open question whether there is a special sort of reasoning dedicated specifically to moral issues, or if it's just regular reasoning applied to moral scenarios. It's an interesting question.

  56. Assume the moon is made of green cheese. Now assume it is knocked out of its orbit and is hurtling toward the earth. Now assume you have super powers, like Superman, and yet water is lethal to you….

    Oh, come on, dude, just accept the premises and go with the flow, because your response may reveal deep things about how you think. Of course, if your response isn't within the prescribed lines, I will call you names.

    I'm a philosopher.

  57. As a fat man, I vote against throwing Fat Men in front of trollys.

    Who knows…you may be killing a Winston Churchill in order to save five Gilbert Gottfrieds.

    Where would Western Civilization be THEN, hunh?

  58. A fat guy? No, I woudn't push him under the train. A Princeton philosopher? That's another matter.

  59. Anon 8:40, Google Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb. He was the original prototype for the linemen we see today.

    Give my experience in the real world, there will always be a couple dozen short, chunky chicas waiting for the train. A half dozen of them should do the job.

  60. "I'd take one einstein over a million trayvons any day.

    Or one tom brady over a thousand dez bryants.

    How's that for logic?"

    I think Dez has less illegitimate kids than Brady. But taking it a step further, what's the Einsten-Brady ratio?

  61. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Bravo Steve – I've always thought the "fat man" version of the trolley experiment was incredibly stupid, partly because it relies on cartoon physics (fat people can stop trains with their bulk? seriously?). I understand the author's intentions, but I think he could have easily made his point with a more elegant thought experiment – say, you push a car onto the tracks that still has the driver inside.

    As written, I can think of plausible reasons why someone would not consider the "switch the tracks" scenario to be equivalent to the "push the fat man" scenario.

    In the first scenario, the sacrificial victim was already somewhat "in danger" by being on the tracks (an intrinsically dangerous location) – perhaps of his own volition. The most important thing is that our hypothetical actor has not deliberately put that man in harm's way – if the victim had not already been on those tracks, he would have come to no harm when the actor switched the tracks in order to save the others. Whereas in the "push the fat man" example, the actor is directly responsible for putting the unsuspecting man, who may have reasonably thought himself safe as he was not on the tracks, into the path of certain death. The sacrifice of one life may be the same in each scenario, but in the first scenario an already-imperiled man is killed indirectly killed by accident, while in the second a previously-safe man is killed directly and deliberately.

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