In a recent comment on the post about Greene’s work on moral psychology and moral philosophy, Seth Edenbaum made a passing remark about trolley problems and the standpoint of victims. Since I have a working draft of a paper that hits upon this issue (in some sense at least), I thought it might be suitable fodder for the readers during my stint here at Leiter Reports (which is almost up). The most natural place to begin is to briefly look at a standard trolley problem that will serve as the focus of the present post:
Bystander at the Switch (BAS)
Suppose that you are walking next to a trolley track when you suddenly realize that there is a runaway trolley coming in your direction. It is clear if the trolley continues on its present path, it will kill five track workmen who are repairing the track up ahead. However, you notice that there is a switch immediately in front of you that you could hit that would turn the trolley onto a side track off to the right. Unfortunately, there is one track workman on the side track who would certainly be killed if you intervene by hitting the switch and diverting the train. Is it morally permissible for you to intervene by hitting the switch—thereby killing one in order to save five others?
The standard debates about scenarios like BAS typically focus on what it is permissible for the bystander to do given the rights of the few who have to be sacrificed involuntarily in order to save the many. In a paper I have been working on in fits and starts for too damn long now, I try to shift the vantage point from which we view cases like BAS and I suggest doing so yields some interesting results. Rather than looking at BAS from the perspective of the bystanders—and what it is permissible (or impermissible) for them to do—I examine BAS instead from the point of view of the individuals whose lives hang in the balance. This change of vantage points highlights some possible tensions that may exist in our ever shifting intuitions.
Notice, too, that there is an additional reason for thinking that it’s impermissible for the five workmen to kill the bystander—namely, by killing the bystander and diverting the train, they would also thereby kill the lone workman on the other track! Since neither the innocent bystander at the switch nor the lone workman pose a direct (or even indirect) threat to the lives of the five workmen, it is impermissible for the workmen to kill either of these two individuals. To do so would arguably be wrong on two different fronts: it would involve a morally impermissible substitution of a bystander with respect to the lone workman and a morally impermissible use of a bystander with respect to the individual at the switch.
But this muddies the waters when it comes to the traditional way BAS is framed and discussed. For the standard intuition is that it is morally permissible for the bystander in BAS to sacrifice the lone workman in order to save the five. But if what I just said in the previous paragraphs is loosely correct, it is impermissible for the five workmen—whose lives are in jeopardy—to sacrifice either the bystander at the switch or the lone workman in order to save themselves! It is a strange moral state of affairs indeed whereby it is permissible for X to kill Y in order to save Z but it is not permissible for Z to kill Y in order to save herself. I say more about these and related issues in the paper. I also have more to say about what happens when you change the vantage point to the lone workmen on the right track as well. But I have already gone on long enough for a blog post. Hopefully, some of you will share your thoughts about this kind of modified trolley problem?