Imagine for a moment that you are driving a locomotive. Behind you are pulling thousands of tons of highly toxic, corrosive, and explosive chemicals. You come around a corner and begin to descend a steep hill towards a city below. You engage the brakes, but they’re dead. The train accelerates down the hill, but there is a fork in the road.
Sitting next to the right track is a comic convention hosted by your favorite actors famous for playing charismatic doctors on television. You’ve seen them cure every real or imaginary disease known to mankind.
But waiting on the left track is a puppy, and it’s an orphan.
You are fast running out of time, and the brakes are still dead. Do you follow the track to the right and desecrate a team of imaginary doctors? Or do you switch the track to the lonely innocent puppy?
And this is the principle of Double Effect or for the rest of us, what course is the lesser evil?
Under certain interpretations, and being the train operator, you have a moral obligation to drive the train to safety. Of course, you could do nothing. Or you could switch the track and strike the puppy. But isn’t that murder?
Is pulling the switch and intentionally killing a living thing different from letting them die?
What if the team of actors that play doctors are really evil?
This is, of course, insane! In CurrentAffairs Adrian Rennix and Nathan Robinson argue that there are no insights to be gained in this test. In real life anyone witnessing this collision would get deeply traumatized, and probably learn nothing. The trolly trivializes the entire exercise of ethics.
Except for that one time in 2003 that a freight train was diverted away from downtown Los Angeles to derail in a neighborhood.
But is the Trolly problem laughable? Can any lessons be learned in ethics?
In 1961, the Yale psychologists began a series of experiments on compliance. In the study, a participant was provided with an electric generator with a series of switches. The switches started at 15 volts and raised the voltage at 15 increments all the way to 450 volts. The switches came with signs beginning at “Slight Shock” and climbed all the way to “Severe Shock”.
The teacher instructed the participant to ask the (invisible) student a series of questions. With each wrong answer, the teacher instructed the participant to shock the student at boosted voltages.
With each new shock, the student complained about the pain, and their heart condition. At the 300 volt switch, the student would demand to be released. Still the teacher encouraged the participant to resume the shocks. Beyond 300 volts, the student fell silent as the participant climbed all the way to the “extreme shock”.
In this test, the voltage is the measure of obedience, and the student got very understandably angry as it evolved. But undisclosed to the participant, the student was an actor. Still 26 out of the 40 participants sent the maximum shock.
But first, let’s return to the Milgram experiment and forget about the problem of compliance. Let’s lose the teacher and assume that it’s just you alone in the room at the helm of the shock generator. Sitting in the next room is a person accused of a crime. Is it acceptable to shock them? The agreement in many situations is that torture is a serious crime along with being a moral wrongdoing. But what if the person in the seat is suspected of kidnapping someone, or several people? Is torture acceptable if you could find them and save their lives? What if you suspect that the person is involved in an imminent terror bombing? Are things different if your intent is noble? Kant believed that your intent is everything.
But most of all, do the ends justify the means?