The Trolley Problem, as given by Eric Schwitzgebel (as part of a larger survey):
You are standing by the railroad tracks when you notice an empty boxcar rolling out of control. It is moving so fast that anyone it hits will die. Ahead on the main track are five people. There is one person standing on a side track that doesn’t rejoin the main track. If you do nothing, the boxcar will hit the five people on the main track, but not the one person on the side track. If you flip a switch next to you, it will divert the boxcar to the side track where it will hit the one person, and not hit the five people on the main track.
What would you do? The question is clearly a moral one. Pull the switch and you knowingly kill one person. Don’t pull and you will be responsible for killing five persons.
Is that a harsh way to put it? Perhaps you could rephrase the consequences of the dilemma so that it doesn’t put so much of the burden on you. Thus: pull the switch and unfortunately one person will give his life for five; don’t pull and you leave all to their fates.
Schwitzgebel polled academic philosophers on the dilemma:
Accept or lean toward: switch 635 / 931 (68.2%)
Other 225 / 931 (24.1%)
Accept or lean toward: don’t switch 71 / 931 (7.6%)
These kinds of results are increasingly being used to create the area of experimental philosophy (I don’t say Schwitzgebel does this, but he did create a survey).
Two-thirds of professional, academic philosophers—men and women who are tenured and accustomed to ponder daily the great and fundamental questions of life—have decided, by majority vote, that the right thing to do is to pull the switch. Therefore, the right thing to do is to pull the switch. Philosophical conundrums solved by survey!
Don’t know the right moral answer? Eyes blurring over after wading through tomes of turgid prose? Spent years on a problem only to discover that you are no closer to the answer than all those who came before you? Then just poll enough people so that statistical significance is reached and the best answer will emerge!
It is, of course, a fallacy to say that the answer to a question is true because a group of academic philosophers agree that it is true. Philosophers acknowledge this fallacy, thus nearly all—strict moral relativists being an exception—do not use survey results as proof of their beliefs. So why experiment?
Well, surveys can possibly give information that clarify questions; though it seems that answers are just as likely to distract or mislead. But even if experimentation is of little use in providing information to answer philosophical questions, it does guarantee endless opportunities for publishing “research,” a problem greater in importance to academics than any other.
The survey for the trolley problem exemplifies the difficulties. The first is in the wording of the question and how that wording is interpreted in your mind. No two people are going to think about it the same way. Everybody will imagine the events unfolding in a different way. I cannot even write down all my “premises” in the trolley problem. That is, I would not know what I would do until I was actually forced into the situation.
The experiment is clear: you either pull the switch or not. It is not said, so you must imply that you have time to pull the switch and the knowledge of how to operate the switch. You must believe that it is certain that people will die and that, say, some of all of the five or the one will sense the train’s approach and jump clear in the nick of time. You must assume that you do not favor the one or the five in some known way (age, sex, beauty, friendship, hatred, etc.).
True, the problem says, in effect, “They will die with certainty”, but that does not mean that certainty translates into a fixed premise in your mind. When I imagine the problem, I cannot help but think that somebody will at least hear the train.
Proof of this confusion is provided by Schwitzgebel’s experiment. One-quarter of the respondents said they would do “Other”, but there is no “other” offered! It’s pull the switch or sit still. What is “other”? Shouting out the window? Waving your arms wildly? Who knows?
It is clear that the trolley problem—like most moral problems—cannot be reduced to a Benthamite calculus. Most moral questions are so complex that they must be adjudged on a case-by-case basis.