General Question

Anaphase's avatar

Would you flip the switch?

Asked by Anaphase (768points) July 29th, 2008

I’m curious to see how Flutherers will answer these philosophical questions.

QUESTION 1: A vacant trolley is barreling down it’s tracks and is heading straight for five strangers tied to the end of the track. You notice that there is an alternate track which the trolley can take if you just flip a switch. The alternate track has a single person tied to the end of it. You have the ability to flip the switch just in time. Do you flip it?

QUESTION 2: A vacant trolley is barreling down it’s tracks and is heading straight for five strangers tied to the end of the track. You notice that the very large man next to you would stop the trolley in it’s tracks if you just pushed him in front of the trolley. You have the ability to push the very large man in front of the trolley. Do you push him?

The trolley will certainly kill whoever it hits and you do not know any of these people.

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

47 Answers

Response moderated
Response moderated
Response moderated
Response moderated
nina's avatar

It is not about ridiculing, it is about feeling all these negative emotions – as if I actually see all these people tied up there. How about just quickly untying them. Not realistic, but satisfying.
Life is full of horrific choices – I refuse to make them for fun.

poofandmook's avatar

@Anaphase: I understand where you’re coming from, truly. But if you think about it… we come here to have fun and get away from our troubles sometimes. Maybe someone will come here with their legitimate troubles and we help them, and that makes us feel good. We don’t necessarily want to come here and consider people dying at our hands.

Anaphase's avatar

It’s just a hypothetical question! I’m not asking you to kill anyone! These questions are designed to determine you’re a utilitarian or not, and not to make you feel bad or anything. I suggest that none of you ever take a philosophy class since you’re so opposed to answering these questions.

AlexChoi's avatar

Calm down everyone, you hate the question… don’t waste your time blasting it.

Kill the one for the good of the many. I’d rather not kill anyone though.

It’s easier to do the switch than to push… but hey… isn’t that why we invented the predator drone?

poofandmook's avatar

@Anaphase: Let me be clear that I’m not blasting the question, just letting you know not to take it personally and to maybe understand why it wasn’t so well received. I find the questions intriguing, personally.

Anaphase's avatar

Poof, I see where you’re coming from. Thanks for clarifying.

btko's avatar

Do all rude people start their sentences with “I don’t mean to be rude”?

I like your question Anaphase, It’s really hard to answer though. I don’t think I would do either.

kevbo's avatar

@ Marina et al, we ALL need hobbies.

Anaphase's avatar

@btko: it’s supposed to be difficult to answer, and that’s what makes it so intriguing. :)

tinyfaery's avatar

I personally think I would just freeze and do nothing. I would like to keep my culpability down to a minimum on this one.

mirza's avatar

Dude, this was on radiolab. This American Life also covered this in one of their episodes. Listen to the episode. Might help.

Heres the excerpt

Act One. Kill One, Save Five.

Say there’s a group of five people standing on a train track, and you’re on a train coming toward them. You can save the whole group by pulling a lever and switching to another track, but the catch is that you’ll kill another person who’s standing on that other track. Do you pull the lever?

According to Harvard scientist Mark Hauser, who posed this question to hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet, nine out of 10 people say yes, they would pull the lever. But then, the questions get harder—and the answers much more confusing. It turns out that different parts of our brains make different moral decisions.

This story originally aired on the New York Public Radio program Radio Lab. (11 minutes)

susanc's avatar

I would flip the switch. I would hesitate to push the big guy in front of the trolley because I would be afraid he would take me with him onto the fatal tracks. Also
because I would feel horrible touching him right before he got crunched.
I wouldn’t question a fellow flutherer for asking a question, at least not so far.
Even a question that had nothing much to do with his own life. But I like those better.

Anaphase's avatar

@susanc – that’s what makes these questions so difficult. The first example has no personal connection with any of the dying people but imthe second example you become connected intimately with the large man – and that’s why it’s hard to push him.

@mirza – yeah, this is a very common question.

btko's avatar

I would say to the big guy “Ok man, we have to save those people… if we jump onto the track we can stop it”... “ok ready? On 3…. 1… 2… 3!” Then not go.

susanc's avatar

btko that is so mean and so funny. I give you lurve for both.

marinelife's avatar

@kev So true. I give you lurve!

OK, I apologize if you found my response rude. I just do not think it is useful to speculate this way.

Not one person here, no matter what they say, knows precisely what they would do in this situation.

My feeling is there are enough agonizing dilemmas in life without making them up to dwell on.

mcbealer's avatar

I read your question. Sorry, it makes my brain hurt.

nikipedia's avatar

@Anaphase, please give credit where credit is due. This is not, in fact, your question.

aaronou's avatar

@nikipedia – He never took credit for the question. Hence, Anaphase’s statement: “This is a very common hypothetical question asked in many philosophy classes.”

Regarding the second question, would we not seem to be more hesitant to push the man because it could be more easily classified as murder?

Anaphase's avatar

@nikipedia – when did I ever say that this was my own question? In fact I distinctly remember saying multiple times that this is a very common question and is used in many philosophy classes…

Anaphase's avatar

@aaronou – Would you not be praised as a hero for saving the lives of five people?

poofandmook's avatar

I would rather not be charged with out-and-out murder, personally.

aaronou's avatar

Well, that’s probably what makes it an even better question. Would I submit to a utilitarian principle and do what might be a greater good in saving 5 lives in exchange for 1 all at the cost of possibly being condemned by the justice system (as I don’t doubt the man’s family would want to press charges)? Hmm, if I gain a bunch of weight, can I just throw myself in front of the train and be a real hero? Honestly, if I were acting on impulse, there is no chance I would push the man. The question is, can I kill in order to save? Probably not.

poofandmook's avatar

not to poke holes, but um, I would think he’d have to be an awfully big boy to stop the trolley rather than just be pushed by it through the 5 people.

Knotmyday's avatar

Since the question is hypothetical, please permit me the philosophical license to “spice it up” a bit.

Hypothetically, I have an extremely intelligent chimpanzee on my shoulder, who, beside being extremely intelligent (and extremely fast) has been trained to drive a trolley. He is also an expert at untying knots.

see how the question suddenly becomes interesting?

I also (in my hypothetical menagerie) possess an extremely large African bull elephant, who just last week won a prestigious award (Longest Distance, in fact) for trolley-flinging. He has also proven his knot untying abilities, and is at par with the ape.

So to me, my particular philosophical conunundrum is not “which marvelous animal will rescue the unfortunate truss-ees on the tracks,” but rather “which nutritionist and gym shall I lead the overweight gentlemen to, as he is in infinitely more mortal danger than the others- due to the state of his health?”

I believe the question has (at last) been definitively answered for all time.

I thank you.

exeunt the philosopher, stage right.

xxporkxsodaxx's avatar

You know, I bet if that one person that is on the other tracks was someone you love and hold dear then it would make this question more interesting. All for say ey! EY! All opposed say nay! ... Then it’s settled, post your answers to this new more interesting question!

Anaphase's avatar

@poofandmook – He’s HUGE. He definitely stops it.

@Knotmyday – That was probably the most hilarious thing I’ve ever read.

@xxporkxsodaxx – You don’t know any of the people. That’s part of the question. They’re all anonymous.

poofandmook's avatar

@Anaphase: Well if this guy is like a house, then I say knotmyday should get his monkey and elephant. LOL

Indy318's avatar

I would lay myself on the tracks, I ain’t a big boy but can aleast slow down the trolley. I can’t accept the fact that peoples lives were in the palm of my hand, so the only life that I would risk is my own.

Anaphase's avatar

@Indy318 – Doing that would kill you AND the five people. If you didn’t want to be involved, why wouldn’t you just walk away and not flip the switch?

jlm11f's avatar

Ok. To answer the actual Q. Situation one – yes, i would flip the switch. greater good, bla bla bla.

Situation two – No I would not push the fat man. Seeing that I have one more person with me, we might have some luck untying the knots before the trolley reaches though. But if that’s not an option, I would just have to stand there, completely helpless. What’s the difference? In the second situation, the big guy wasn’t ON the tracks, already tied. I would be directly causing his death, thus murder. Plus, since the big guy has a brain of his own, I bet he would be thinking “hmm let me throw this girl in the way of the trolley and at least slow it down a bit” while I untie the others, so I might even be worried about my own life. Interesting Q.

jholler's avatar

yes. My gift is not necessarily being able to make the RIGHT decision, but being able to simply MAKE a decision under pressure. If you think too long, everyone dies. Simple answer: save as many as possible.

xxporkxsodaxx's avatar

@anaphase, I know they’re all anonymous, I’m not oblivious to this, I’m saying that if the one on the different tracks was someone you did know and was close to you then you would have a bigger question on you hands and it would have made more people fight over whether to kill the 5 and save one or kill someone you know and you are close to and save 5.

poofandmook's avatar

@pork: The exercise actually has several more questions, and each one throws a wrench in that makes it harder to decide. That’s why your suggested “wrench” isn’t thrown into that particular question.

poofandmook's avatar

Each question in the exercise gets harder, so that’s why it’s not so hard in the beginning

xxporkxsodaxx's avatar

Oh never mind then, but I still think my question would be a better combatant.

shrubbery's avatar

Would not the very large man be able to see what was going on and decide whether he was prepared to jump in front of the trolley? I would never push someone against their will, but if he wanted to be a hero and save the other people then yes I would help him put himself in front of the trolley. If he said no, I would like to imagine that I would proceed to let him know that even though I may not be big enough to stop the trolley I am going to try, and I might possibly slow it down enough for him to then stop it without getting killed.

Indy318's avatar

Shrubbery, that’s exactly what I was trying to explain- that you can’t become “God” and determine who lives and who dies. In the 1st Question you can’t just say that “oh, more people will be saved if I flip the switch” because people arent dispensable objects- we have feelings and a conscience. Killing 1 to save 5 makes it seem so cutthroat because it devalues humans to just simple pawns. For the 2nd one, one can’t force the man to lay on the tracks because you would be committing manslaughter in the process. It may be selfish for the man not to do so but that’s his prerogative. The only person’s life you can control is your own, you can just walk away or attempt to save the others by leaping onto the track.

jlm11f's avatar

@lndy318 – “it may be selfish for the man not to do so” – i disagree. If the man decides to jump in and save 5 people, it would be brave and honorable of him to do so. But if he decides not to kill himself to save 5 strangers, it would be human of him to think so.

i know you used the word “may” to describe it, but I just wanted to clarify that one point.

jholler's avatar

Indy, you CAN decide who lives and who dies…that choice is put into our hands every day. Every time you get behind the wheel of a car, stand by someone on a sidewalk by a busy street, or exercise your 2nd amendment right to arm yourself, you decide over and over to let people live. You CAN do anything you choose, a wise friend once told me, so long as you are willing to accept the consequences. If the consequence of killing someone is that 5 others WON’T die, whereas your INaction will result in THEIR deaths, which is the most responsible choice? I have been to war. I have killed so that others would live. Granted, it may have been easier because those that lived were my friends, but I accept the consequences of my actions. The consequence was that my friends came home, while someone else’s friends did not.

Indy318's avatar

First of all, I would like to thank you, jholler, for your service to our country. Death is something you had to fimilarize yourself with very quickly. However I don’t think I could ever take the life of another human. You refer to daily choices that save lives but I don’t wish a choice like the one presented to us by this question on anyone. Human life is something I have great value for, maybe too much. It would take great strength and courage, like you have demonstrated with your time in the military, to flip the switch or push the man, something that I hope I have at a time like that. I would experience terrible remorse for the fact that I took away someone else’s loved one, a father, mother, sibling, or friend. That is why I don’t see the switch as saving 5 people but actually taking 1 as a sacrifice. I still stand by my decision of laying my body on the track because no one should be given the power to play “God”

PhilGood's avatar

The thrux of these questions lies in a simple distinction. It is a matter or “killling” vs “Letting Die”. In the first scenario in the first question to not pull the lever is to let die, where as to pull it would be to kill. Is either worse than the other, especially when the killing will minimize suffering (1 v 5 deaths)?

You usually see this is philiosohpy class lead up to a discussion on a topic like euthanasia. Is it right for a Dr. to let a patient die (pulling of a feeding tube and letting them essentially starve to death/ or for the purpose of the analogy not pulling the lever) when they can just as easily put them out of their misery quickly with little to no pain by killing them (a simple needle will do)? I am one for minimizing suffering, thus I view euthanasia and pulling the lever not as an act of playing God but as an act of compassion. We as a society view it as a disservice to a pet when we let them live in a state of constant suffering, euthanasia in this scenario is commonly acceptable. Yet when it comes to humans, who are on their death beds in constant agony, we hold the viewpoint that anyone who puts them out of thier misery should be put in jail? I for one disagree with this blatent contradiction.

Answer this question




to answer.

This question is in the General Section. Responses must be helpful and on-topic.

Your answer will be saved while you login or join.

Have a question? Ask Fluther!

What do you know more about?
Knowledge Networking @ Fluther