The Trolley Problem – When Ethics don’t matter

The Trolley Problem is somewhat famous among philosophers. A fat man stands on a bridge, below him, a trolley (that is, a tram or streetcar) is driving towards a group of people, typically about five. The supposed problem is now: Is it ethical to push the fat man from the bridge, into the way of the trolley to stop it and safe the people?

There is a true solution to the problem and it is perfectly simple. But there are lots and lots of false solutions proposed by philsophers that are convoluted, hard to understand and actually deeply meaningless the more you think about it. The idea behind such “solutions” is that you will not be able to disentangle the argument and the one who brought it forth will be perceived as the “winner” of the debate. It’s an intellectual pissing contest and little more. One such was a convoluted argument that boiled down to “you must not instrumentalize a human being”. Well then, go ahead I’d say to the philosopher, jump yourself.

What about the simple solution? Am I not being arrogant for making fun of philosphers? Well no. As a matter of fact, a fat man, no matter how overweight, simply cannot stop a trolley. A 20 ton trolley (a typical weight for a single car) colliding with a 200kg man will lose 1% of its speed. It won’t stop. It won’t derail. You will have killed another man for nothing.

The only appropriate answer is to point out that the premise is wrong.

Now am I just picking nids? Hardly. What if you are a fat man yourself? Having heard of the problem and the philosophers argument, that you must not instrumentalize the other fat man, you do indeed jump yourself. You will believe that you will stop the trolley and safe the lives of 5 people. You will not have time to regret your mistake. You have literally thrown your life away at the behest of a philosopher trying to score a point in an intellectual pissing contest.

Thus it is easy see that all of the philosophers answers are ridiculous, even dangerous. That includes those answers which conclude that you shouldn’t push the fat man from the bridge. Solving a problem is not about arriving at the correct answer. You could flip a coin and have a 50% chance to get it “right”. It is about understanding the problem to be solved, the actual answer is the least part of it.

There is an underlying problem at work that systematically undermines philosophy in general and ethics in particular. The problem is that you must make absolutely sure to have understood the problem. You must not make assumptions for the sake of the argument, if you cannot assure that you understood the problem as far as it can be understood in the first place. Because such assumptions are not for the sake of the argument, but they are the demise of the argument.

It has been long known that following from arbitrary assumptions, even correct argumentation will lead to meaningless conclusions. All philosophy and all of ethics must be subservient to nature and by extension to the results of what used to be called “natural philosophy”. This demand is not born out of arrogance. It is the simple recognition that using the tools of ethics without considering natural reality leads to arbitrary argumentation and arbitrary conclusions. Arbitrary conclusions necessarily include unethical ones.

Making people jump from bridges in a vain attempt to safe people is just one possibility. Unless you know about the technological limitations of aircraft, you may well conclude that a powerful political group is trying to prevent the use of helicopters in favour of airplanes that need expensive, large centralized infrastructure. Anybody with an acre of land could have a personal helicopter. Thus helicopters are being suppressed by capitalists who profit from the difficulties surrounding the use of airplanes and centralized airports. In conclusion, the use of airplanes must be curtailed as much as possible to encourage the socially much more advantageous use of helicopters. The whole argumentation is only possible by implicitly assuming that there are no fundamental differences between airplanes and helicopters.

But of course there are. Airplanes consume less fuel, need less maintenance, are much more scalable, cheaper and faster. Helicopters are a specialized, extremely expensive aircraft only used for application where hovering is necessary and landing opportunities may be limited to small patches of land. Yet, in ignorance of such facts, the proposed policies are perfectly defensible using the tools of that ugly trade called ethics. The result will be unethical.

More to the point, ethical arguments of the kind outlined above are being flung back and forth by environmentalists, generally in perfect ignorance of the subject matter they are talking about. It is impossible to make ethical decisions about nuclear power, if you don’t know how it works, if you don’t know what radioactivity is, if you don’t bother trying to find, read and understand reports on their investigation.

Likolas Lloyd made a similar argument. Although he didn’t try to find a way to make ethical decisions, but does offer a definition of what is evil thus:

Morality and practicality are one. “Evil” is the attempt to separate the two.

And what is this other than demanding that reality is given its due, before any dabbling in Ethics. Or to go back much further in time, we can find Aristoteles’ take on the matter in Book 1 Part 3 of Nicomachian Ethics:

Each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general.

And he too, follows this up with a stern warning that those who put the study of Ethics ahead of the study of nature, will come to false conclusions.

He is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action.

In modern days’ parlance you call such people ACTIVISTS. You recognize them easily. They put ethics first.


One thought on “The Trolley Problem – When Ethics don’t matter

  1. Apart from “path to hell is paved with good intentions” can you specify exactly what actions of activists irk you. I loved the post, but it was very general, and even thought i got the point, it would be nice to see to what specific act this note applies.

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