Posts Tagged ‘ Trolley Car ’

Critical Analogies and Dis-Analogies Between the Trolley Car and Emergency Organ Harvest Experiments

I, like almost everyone else in the world, am not a utilitarian. More surprisingly, I reject utilitarianism for almost the same reasons as everyone else, almost. Is pleasure preferable to pain? Of course. Should maximizing net pleasure be the sole concern of our moral inquiries? probably not. ¬†Utilitarianism, like almost all absolutist moral philosophies, is subject to damning counter examples, one of which I’ll focus on here.

Judith Jarvis Thomson:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

On its face, it’s identical to a trolley car experiment: kill one to save five. The difference is, here, no one regards the decision to be as easy as flipping the switch on the trolley car. I think I can safely put the variance in responses up to people simply not understanding thought experiments, but some elaboration is in order.

In the trolley car experiment, the probability of the five being killed in lieu of a track switch is 1, the probability of the one being killed and five being saved with a switch is 1. The experiment’s beauty is in its simplicity; people understand that there really are only two possible outcomes here. When hearing the emergency transplant scenario, however, people implicitly reject these probabilities even though they assent to them, their real-world knowledge weighs too heavily on them: the patients are old and sick, their donor is young and healthy, no surgeon is perfect.

The other side of the coin is viscerality: The traveler is completely innocent and you’re going to strap him to a table and carve him open with your own hands. The man tied to the rails must have found himself there somehow and he’s probably expecting a trolley to come barreling down any minute; it will never look like anyone intentionally killed him. All moot, the parameters of the experiment are such that both these men were completely safe and free from any danger until an agent’s utilitarian calculation worked against them. Each life in the experiments will be equally long and happy after they’re conducted, all there is to do is for your intuition to dictate whether five go on or one does.

The interesting thing is, when fully appreciated, these experiments tell us precisely nothing. When utility is the only value at stake, of course you maximize it. However, loosening the constraints of either experiment and actually allowing other values a stake in the decision does illustrate why people who do and don’t fully understand the experiments ultimately reject utilitarianism.

Naturally, the more easily adaptable experiment is the emergency transplant. Adding a combination of uncertainty and a reasonable person standard with regard to choices immediately engenders huge and justified sympathies for the traveler. Yes, his life still likely represents a new lease on five others (or, make it seven so we can say the expected value stays the same), but our general experience of the world tells us that a person making his sequence of choices to end up in the hospital should expect no harm to come to him and indeed deserves no harm to come to him. Of course, the same could be said of the patients, none of whom may have any behaviorally caused ailments.

It seems as though a bullet must be bitten either way. My very narrow contention is that, while the patients may not have merited their conditions, the forces of history have nevertheless placed them here at deaths door. Now, the surgeon does have the option of taking history into his own hands and establishing a principle that allows moral agents to make their mark on the procession of existence to a degree rivaling fate, The question is: need we favor the will of many to exercise their liberty over fate over one whose liberty was granted by fate?

I worry about the consequences.

Advertisements