May. 2nd, 2013

foliumnondefluet: (Default)
I was watching a lecture on morality by prof. Sandel when some questions occurred to me (

Most students chose the option to divert the trolley on a track with only one person, thereby avoiding five. But most students didn't want to save the five by pushing a fat man in front of the trolley car.

Sandel is a Kantian, so he theorizes that pushing the fat man in front of the trolley is "using a conscious entity as a means" and we instinctively shy away from that. But what intrigued me was the (all to brief) explanation from one of the very few students who didn't want to divert the trolley in the first scenario - in my opinion it was basically a similarly Kantian argument; the student said that by diverting the trolley you are sacrificing the one to save the five, and that is something one should categorically never do. Sandel asks, almost sarcastically "even if it means five people are killed instead?" yet doesn't ask this from people who don't want to push the fat man.

Personally I think Kant's maxim is flawed because it's totally fuzzy what "treating a person only as an end in itself" even means. I think you can *always* find a perspective that says you're using someone "as a means". So I was probably not going to be convinced by that anyway, but I think the student's position shows how subjective and arbitrary Kant-like arguments are applied.

An interesting idea then occurred to me: look at what the choices *avoid* rather than what they select. In the first scenario people don't actually choose to kill the one person; they choose to avoid running over the five others. What of the second scenario? You avoid either (1) pushing the fat man in front of the trolley, killing him; or (2) standing by and doing nothing while five people die.

I think we can explain the reaction to the second scenario by stating that people would vastly prefer to stand by and do nothing rather than get involved, deciding who lives or dies, and run the risk of criticism for it. The difference with the first scenario is I think that there, we are said to be at the steering wheel of the trolley, and one could argue that steering one way or the other is anyway our choice so we can't really escape blame either way. But if we DID push the fat man, the trolley would stop, the fat man would be dead, the five would never know they were in danger, and it'd be left to us to explain why pushing someone onto the tracks seemed like a good idea.

It seems to me that the student who objected to diverting the car in the first scenario basically declined responsibility for steering, he wanted to let the car run as it would rather than bear the moral consequences of making a choice. He preferred to be a bystander, it seems.

So I don't think this shows that we somehow instinctively obey Kant's moral maxims. Rather I think it may show our penchant for what is called the "bystander effect".

But knowing that humans have a proven tendency to shirk responsibility in emergencies, what are we to make of our instinctive reluctance to push the fat man in front of the train, thereby saving five lives? Can we trust it as a "moral intuition" telling us what's right? Or are we merely finding justifications for our unwillingness to do the right thing and take responsibility for it?


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