Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trolley problem

This was sent in by an anonymous reader. I remember reading the trolley problem before and being really surprised that some people might not kill the one guy to save the more. For some reason, I also feel that killing the wandering stranger is a mistake. Maybe it is because I know the statistics of organ transplant success. Or I know how expensive and dangerous it is to do those type of surgeries. In some sort of way, I think I feel like the young stranger is actually more deserving of his own organs than the other five. Or it could be my particular form of efficiency-loving Burkean libertarianism that generally doesn't like to mess with things because of unforeseen consequences -- the longer the period you're looking at (organ donations), the greater the uncertainty. Or maybe I do have a soul. Here it is:

Thought experiments can teach us about the cognitive processes involved in moral decision making, and perhaps none is ultimately so telling as the trolley problem. One formulation of the trolley problem goes like this:
Five people are tied to a trolley track, and a trolley is speeding toward them. You're standing next to a switch that can divert the trolley onto another track. If you do nothing they'll all be killed in a matter of seconds. If you throw the switch it will divert the trolley off of the track with the five people tied to it, and onto a track with only one person tied to it. While the five will be saved, the one who wouldn't have been harmed otherwise will now be killed. Do you throw the switch?
Another formulation can be stated this way:
Five people are tied to a trolley track, and the trolley is speeding toward them. If you do nothing, they'll all be killed in a matter of seconds. You're standing on a bridge behind a tall and extremely fat man who is leaning against a rickety railing. No one else is there, and he's totally oblivious to both your presence and his precarious position. If you push him, the railing will give and he'll fall directly in front of the trolley. He will be killed, but he'll also bring the trolley to a stop, preventing it from harming the five people tied to the track. Do you push the fat man?
For hard-headed readers who answered "yes" to the first two, there is at least one more formulation:
You are a talented surgeon in a small village where five people need various organ transplants. None of them are on waiting lists, and all will die in a matter of days if they don't get organs. Each is in a weakened state, so you can't use organs from one to save another. If you could find a healthy donor, you'd be able to save them all.

By chance, a young traveler with a minor cut on his arm visits your office. Just for kicks you run a blood test, and find out that he's a perfect match for all 5. He mentions that no one saw him come in. Furthermore, not only is he in the country illegally, traveling alone on foot, and paying for everything with cash, but he didn't even tell anyone back home where he was going because he's estranged from his family. etc., etc. Do you tell the young man to wait while you get a tetanus booster shot, only to return with a syringe containing a powerful sedative? Or do you just smile and send him on his way?

When answering the various formulations of the problem, what decisions did you make, and why did you make them? How long did it take you to arrive at your decisions? How long did it take you to come up with explanations for your decisions?

Joshua Greene of Harvard University has done extensive research on cognition and moral judgment by asking test subjects these kinds of questions while performing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). His results can be summarized in three sentences. When people choose a course of action which maximizes outcomes, the parts of their brain which show the most activity are those associated with rational and quantitative thinking. When people choose a course of action in which they do not perform acts which directly harm others, the parts of their brain which show the most activity are those associated with emotion and feeling. These parts of the brain 'light up' as soon as the questions are read, much more quickly than most people can formulate an explanation.
When I tried to answer the series of trolley questions myself, I found that I was making nearly instantaneous judgments as to which option made me feel least guilty. The process of using my intellect to come up with a list of justifications didn't even start until after my decision was final. The most troubling thing about this for me is that I approached the series of questions with deliberate intent to be as rational and consistent as possible. I realized that I couldn't be. In all likelihood, virtually no one can.

This raises important questions for readers who pride themselves on rationality. We could address hypothetical questions about judgments on specific situations, but I'm more interested in general questions like: "How can I trust my moral judgment on anything?" Well, how can you? The fundamental point of the trolley problem goes beyond whether any one decision is right or wrong. The real question is whether it's even possible for certain categories of human decision making to be rational. I don't think we can have a grown-up discussion about morality without addressing this.

At its core, the trolley problem raises a new kind of "duality" question; one which is thoroughly modern and scientific. Are we thinking with one brain, or multiple brains? Does the amygdala vie for control with the cerebral cortex? Do the right and left hemispheres struggle against each other? If so, what determines which will win? If we direct our own thoughts and decisions, then why are those decisions made as quickly as autonomic reflexes? Who or what is in control of our thoughts? What does our thought process say about who and what we are?

34 comments:

  1. I tried these on empath friends the other day, and once they had stopped complaining about the unreality of the hypothetical situation all three said they would throw the switch to kill the one man, but they wouldn't push the fatty (I haven't heard the third one before).

    I think that if my choice had to be active, I would throw the switch, push the man, and let the traveller alone. I think that in reality I wouldn't actually be bothered enough to do anything about it. I mean, I've not ever been in any of these situations, but my gut feeling is that I wouldn't throw the switch, because it requires involvement in someone else's issues; and I wouldn't push the fat man, because it would get me done for manslaughter; and I wouldn't gut the traveller because it would be a great deal of effort and I would get nothing out of it (except the knowledge I'd saved five lives, which doesn't count as something worth anything).

    I don't know. It seems that involving yourself in these dilemmas, in reality, would only create trouble for yourself, so I don't see the dilemma is choosing who dies, but choosing whether or not to choose at all, and to just let events take their course. No?

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  2. I’ve seen this thought experiment before and they are, or at least can be, provocative.

    “When answering the various formulations of the problem, what decisions did you make, and why did you make them? How long did it take you to arrive at your decisions? How long did it take you to come up with explanations for your decisions?”

    When thinking thru these thought experiments, I assumed that the goal was saving as many lives were possible, ergo, kill the one to save the several. Or as luscious Angelina Jolie put it in ‘Wanted’, “Kill one, save a thousand”, which was the argument she used to persuade our assassin in training why he should fully commit to his new profession. And so assuming that was the goal, I automatically decided in each case to kill the one without giving it any thought. Afterwards though, it occurred to me to wonder why the 5 deserved to live any more than the 1 did. Once I asked myself that question, then I figured I wouldn’t take any action at all in the absence of further information.

    “When I tried to answer the series of trolley questions myself, I found that I was making nearly instantaneous judgments as to which option made me feel least guilty.”

    Curious. I didn’t think of any potential guilt I might feel. Like I said, my own instantaneous thoughts were centered on fulfilling the objective, which made the answer easy in each example. I didn’t even bother with justifying my answers to myself. Once I questioned the objective itself, however, I changed my mind.

    “How can I trust my moral judgment on anything? Well, how can you?”

    I don’t. Then again, I don’t really try to trust my moral judgment. For me personally, that’s a non-starter. In my mind, that question sounds like, “How can I trust my ability to distinguish one fantasy from another?”

    “The fundamental point of the trolley problem goes beyond whether any one decision is right or wrong. The real question is whether it's even possible for certain categories of human decision making to be rational. I don't think we can have a grown-up discussion about morality without addressing this.”

    Hmm. It depends on what you mean by ‘human decision making’ and ‘rational’.

    “At it's core, the trolley problem raises a new kind of "duality" question; one which is thoroughly modern and scientific. Are we thinking with one brain, or multiple brains? Does the amygdala vie for control with the cerebral cortex? Do the right and left hemispheres struggle against each other? If so, what determines which will win? If we direct our own thoughts and decisions, then why are those decisions made as quickly as autonomic reflexes? Who or what is in control of our thoughts? What does our thought process say about who and what we are?”

    Ah yes, the famous question of just what is the thinker and if the thinker is in fact control of what he thinks or is instead an after birth, if you will, of the brain’s processes. Does the horse really lead the cart, or is the horse itself merely a kind of illusion? Does the thinker come before or after? What difference would the answer to that question make to mankind’s sense of morality, such as it is?

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  3. The first two iterations of the problem are easy because I get to do things I've always wanted:
    A. Heroically save lives without compromising my safety
    B. Kill someone without serious consequences

    The third 'traveler' scenario is too problematic. Your actions would demonstrate serious premeditation. And how to answer the inevitable question: "Doctor where did you acquire such youthful and supple organs?"

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  4. what if throwing the switch crashes the train into another? Those switches are carefully orchestrated, to be sure, and maybe on the other track a thousand people die, or the resources the train is carrying are all destroyed. Now we have to consider the value of life... not as high as people may think.

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  5. These are silly. They're just meant to illustrate the difference between compassionate people and logical people, and often compassionate people want to believe that they'd throw the switch so they sday they would, but really would never do it. That or they're meant to illustrates the strengths of logical people able to make such decisions like generals or the FBI or something. Either way, they're a joke on a sociopath website because they don't so similarly paralel the sociopath persona as people may think. It's an empathetic rationale to justify us, and we need no such justification to ourselves.

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  6. What if you choose to let the five die because it's more exciting to see a crowd of people wrecked by a train than just one? Because that was my reasoned response.

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  7. Ok definite empath here. The question made me freak out and induced a sense of panic because i automatically don't want to hurt anyone. My final judgement is that i wouldn't intervene at all in the trolley episodes as then none of it would be my fault, and i wouldn't hace blood on my hands.

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  8. Anon above:

    Really? You freaked out and experienced some kind of panic? I'm not being sarcastic or facetious here. I find these kinds of reactions fascinating. Is it automatic? Do you have to think about it before such emotions are felt? How far would you go to avoid killing?

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  9. I may be an empath but have a hard time feeling sorry for people who somehow allow themselves into a situation wherein they end up tied to train tracks. Does it really matter which of them live or die? At some point isn't it really just natural selection? I mean I would take a bullet in the head before I let someone tie me to train tracks.

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  10. Really. I feel an instant sense of anxiety. It's normal for me, though i am aware i am very empathic. If i were to guess at why i have that automatic feeling, it would be that my mind instantly thinks about the fear of the people in question and the horror and grief which is to come. My decision though i suspect includes fear of puinshment also.

    Love this blog it's an alternate universe.

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  11. "Love this blog it's an alternate universe."

    This blog may even love you back . . . with your cute idealism and delicate sensibilty.

    So Anon, what are you wearing?

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  12. It never even occurred to me think about any of the potential victims’ fears. It didn’t occur to me in fact until you bought it up. That’s part of the reason I found your reaction fascinating. Thanks for responding anon.

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  13. I would act like I'm untieing them, but go through their pockets and get anything valuable out. When the trolley came I would get out of the way and let it do it's thing. I would then start crying for them telling the other tied person that I tried so hard to save them. I could use this story again later to get laid with the sympathy card. How I'm emotionally scarred by the event.
    There's no reason to throw the switch. Those people are there for a reason. People don't tie you to a rail for nothing. You did something to deserve this fate. Throwing the switch implicates you in a crime that you don't benefit from. You can still be seen as the hero for acting like you're trying to save the others. I'm sure that one person would be in your debt forever for sacraficing so many lives for him/her.

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  14. I would not throw the switch. Why test fate. If this was the original course of the train and you switch the track with out warning then one person would certainly die but so would the other five when the train which was diverted off the track with just the one girl runs over the five. Then you lose 6 lives instead of just five. Then what about the one chick tied to the other track? There is likely to be another train coming from that direction then she dies. It's a lose lose situation. I would just walk away from that debacle and not look back.

    I would throw the fat man off the bridge because chances are he wasn't going to live much longer anyway if he was extremely obsese. Odds are about 40% that there is at least 2 reasonably healthy persons riding in the train and that is still one more than the single large dude on the bridge.

    As for the five sick people I would let the traveller go because chances are greater that at least 1 of the 5 people requiring organ transplants are going to need the same singular organ such as a liver or a heart. Plus with such a small ratio of persons having to recieve these transplants the chances for complications enters the mix. 1 dies of infection and another dies on the table from multiple organ system failure because the disease metabolises at different rates in each individual. Then you have to account for postop failures and tissue rejects. So at the very best you wind up saving 2 and killing 4. That doesn't seem logical at all. Your odds are better with multiple donors. Now if a set of triplets walked in with that story then there the chances for reaching the goal successfully don't quite double but get damn close (with in 35% 40%).

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  15. Pager said Those people are there for a reason. People don't tie you to a rail for nothing. You did something to deserve this fate. Throwing the switch implicates you in a crime that you don't benefit from.

    I didn't think about that but it's a damn good point.

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  16. Oh my!! How horrible!! I'd cry first but I'm sure I could muster up enough courage to ask someone for help. Hmmmmm. I don't know!! LoL! :) Maybe they would all die because I can't do anything right!! ROFL!!
    You guy are silly!!

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  17. Tinkerbelle, if you're the future, then the human race is doomed.

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  18. That wasn't Tinkerbelle. That was Thunderball/Peter Pan/whoever the fuck this ignorant moron is.

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  20. Sounds like she killed sister on chance that he might show up again and she can see him again. A classic lateral thinking problem.

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  21. "I'm wondering who else gets it."

    Blarg . . . everyone has heard that chestnut before.

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  23. I don't get how it is the answer that only a sociopath would get either. Granted Im not a sociopath but still I would likely forget about the guy seconds after we locked eyes especially if he just walked out with out an introduction. Who the frig cares if I ever see him again. Obviously if I kill my sister Im going to go the jail anyway so chances are I wouldnt get to be with him anyway. It seems like a pretty lame diagnostic question and is just playing off the stereotype that every sociopath has got to be a senseless murder with no common sense. It is a stereotype isnt it?

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  24. I agree a murder ain't no way to see a broad again. There's too many fish in the sea and most sociopaths get laid easy. Why would you murder kinfolk to see some retard you could've cracked when your eyes locked

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  25. This crap is only useful in understanding the cognitive process behind morality of those that make such decisions through the filter of emotion. The hierarchy of how we process information isn't 'emotion'. Logic and rational thought is possible to anyone, but it still has to go through the dominant mode.

    Being a sociopath isn't about logic. We're not Spock and logic isn't the anecdote to emotion. We are “stimulus-driven”. That's the opposite of emotional driven.

    And that's why this hypothetical shit isn't even on our grid. Or at least mine. My first reaction is, "How the hell can anyone answer that???" I don't know what will be the 'right' thing to do until I get there. And only when or if that moment comes will I have the clarity and confidence to know what I'm capable of, and after it's done, it's done. It is what it was...now on to the next.

    All the sociopath's answers sound so wishy washy, because to even try and determine what we will do is counter-productive. The moment helps us decide, and if there's anything we DO know it's that this exercise is not only futile, but impossible. There's so much more to how I behave, who I am and what I'm capable of than what some answer to a moral dilemma would show. What I do, who I am, how I feel is not just a reflection of the moment - it's intrinsic to the moment. It doesn't mean it's not complex, or that we lack self examination - it just doesn't lend itself to an accurate analysis of who we are by observing what we do or say.

    Daniel Birdick said...

    It never even occurred to me think about any of the potential victims’ fears.


    It's because this exercise addresses emotion and morality as empaths experience it. But if this were ever a reality, as impossible a situation as it is, anyone-empath or not-would be in survival "stimulus driven" mode. And not likely to think about that either. It's where their deficit of self awareness is always overlooked.

    Anon:

    Really. I feel an instant sense of anxiety.
    The reason why this hypothetical question is problematic for empaths is because the reality is that human can't process this kind of survival, life or death scenario in the emotion' mode. You would automatically switch to the "stimulus-driven" auto-pilot that is still hard wired in your brain, but it's not how your dominant filter for processing information. So it's a little unfair. It's like asking a right handed person to write with their left hand. The anxiety is actually your brain telling you that to 'reboot' because your not in the correct 'mode' to complete handle this decision. Your trying to run Oregon Trail in Vista. Not gonna happen. You have to go old school DOS.

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  26. M.e. said
    "or maybe i do have a soul."


    All of this got me trying to find and re-read an article I had read years ago on psychopaths and pathological liars that I remember not because it was so informative, but because the methodology and unfounded assumptions were so profoundly stupid. And I love LOVE unintentional irony: The only evidence presented was that, by their own words, the authors were the only individuals involved that couldn't recognize their own contradictions.

    So I was going googling to find a non-subscription site to link to that published the article and the first place I found it was on blog named SOULESS PSYCHOPATHS. Hil-ar-EEEEEE-us.

    M.e. said
    "or maybe i do have a soul."


    Not lookin' good.

    http://soulesspsychopaths.blogspot.com/2009/08/first-evidence-of-brain-abnormalities.html

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  27. http://soulesspsychopaths.blogspot.com/2009/08/first-evidence-of-brain-abnormalities.html

    If I believed in meaningful coincidences, I’d say that the link was a kind of synchronicity since I just got through telling some pretty fat whoppers today.

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  28. Btw Sarah, thanks for that link. I get the uncanny feeling that blogger is yet another hapless victim of an evil sociopath, who is now on a 'crusade' to spread the word about this dangerous and vile minority of 'soulless' creatures who masquerade as humans. Gawd bless those love fraud chics, every one!

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  29. If I believed in meaningful coincidences, I’d say that the link was a kind of synchronicity since I just got through telling some pretty fat whoppers today.

    Gawd. You sociopaths. It's aways gotta be about you you you!

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  31. The trolley problem:

    1) More than anything else this would be decided by my subconcious prejudices, or the tribalism and/or the similarities to myself of the potential victims. If the single person was a member of my tribe or much more similar to me than the other five, my instantiousness decision would probably be to do nothing.
    However, speaking as moralistically as I can muster, I don't think it is right to consciously condemn the one person to save the five people. Not enough difference in scale. If it were 100 people vs the 1, then perhaps the case would become stronger.

    (2) again the subconcious component (in my view the majority component) would be based on tribalism / similarity or lack theoreof. How fat am I?
    But morally, it would be absolutely wrong to murder the fat guy just because he could be used to save those other people. What did the fat guy do to deserve to he sacrificed?
    (3) same as 2 but more so

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  32. More people need to be on http://sociopath-community.com/

    !!! it used to be connected to this blog but was disconnected over a year ago. We need fresh blood and lots of interesting things have happened recently (relates to kiwifar.ms drama: https://archive.is/M2tXa) that will go down in the forum's history! Be sure to check out http://www.psychforums.com/antisocial-personality/ too, as some of its regulars are regulars on SC too!

    Goddamn ME refused to reconnect the blog to the forum so we SC goers will just have to spam advertisements for the forum in the comments section. ;)

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