Suppose you discover a device which allows you to kill those whom you would. The device’s “batteries” never run out; it will always work and never disappoint. The device is of such excellence that you will never be caught in these killings nor even suspected in the deaths it causes. Nobody knows or will ever discover you have the device, not even after you are dead.
Perhaps the device uses the excess heat produced by global warming to run a cold-fusion zero-point energy quantum death ray, that when switched on tunnels through a wormhole from the device to the victim, and is thus untraceable.
Would you use the device? Would somebody else? Would you, if you could, ensure that this device is destroyed?
The temptation to zap enemies would be strong, perhaps overwhelming. Think of the good you could do with it! Cult leaders gone in the flick of a switch, maniacs with “gender-transforming” knives and chemical-filled syringes given the pronoun “deceased”, Planned Parenthood offices vacated; the world instantly a better, safer place.
This hypothetical scenario belongs in the class of academic “trolley problems”. The classic situation is to suppose you are confronted with a runaway trolley that will cream a group of unaware victims, unless you pull a lever which will redirect the trolley onto another track. The kick is that on this other track is a single person who will certainly be crushed.
Do nothing and let a handful die, or act and kill one. What do to!
Much has been written about this and similar scenarios, but all of the writing shares one thing in common. It’s same thing in common with our Death Machine. It’s mostly irrelevant.
I do not know what I’d do in a real-life trolley emergency. Probably start smacking controls that I know nothing about, hoping that something good would happen. I’d probably derail the train and kill everybody. Or I might want to act but worry that if I touched anything I’d do greater harm. Or I might figure, in the heat of the moment, that surely that somebody in the station will see the trolley coming and warn the others to hop out off the way. Or I might try and find a public address system to shout out a warning.
What answer I give now, sitting in the cool of the bar at cocktail hour, where I can puzzle out all my actions in the belief the problem itself is unambiguous, won’t give anybody much insight into what I or anybody would do for real.
The difficulty of creating unambiguous scenarios cannot be underestimated. In the academic trolley problem there are no words about the existence of a public address system. That means people are free to think there is. And thus they are free to think they might use it and save everybody’s lives.
Even if the academic trolley scenario is modified to include “No way of communicating with the people on the tracks is possible before the trolley hits”, it does not mean people asked to consider the modified scenario will believe it. People might say to themselves, “Oh, I’m sure there’s at least a window somewhere nearby.”
People bring all kind of baggage to these hypotheticals making the task of the researcher designing them doubly difficult. The scenario itself has to be crystalline, from which there cannot possibly be any deviation.
These scenarios can exist. But only in situations where all fuzziness and the potential for modification from the persons being quizzed can be removed. They work in math, for instance. If x + y = 12, and y = 7, what is x? There is only one right answer. Assuming only integer solutions, naturally. See? Another unspoken premise!
But if you modified the question into a scenario in which you hope to discover the hidden depths of citizens’ mathematical knowledge, you might be disappointed. Such a scenario might be, “You walk into a room with a chalkboard with the following math problem (as above). What number would you write?”
Then you could expect answers like, “42” (from a Douglas Adams fan), “My phone number” from a wag, and so on.
It’s not that nothing can be learned from scenarios. For instance, in the death-ray setup, I’d say I wouldn’t use it. Rather, I probably wouldn’t use it, because why? Because God is watching. That no other person sees would not excuse me from culpability (the same with all my sins!).
That means the real point of these scenarios are the hidden, tacit, or implied premises bring to them. Learn them and you learn something interesting.