***This is a paper I wrote for my Ethics and Values class. I impulse-published it because I know my teacher read it, but other than me he’s the only person these words will ever see. Please, comment on what you think. I don’t want to be the only person who’s ever really read this.***
Whether or not trolley problems as philosophical thought experiments are effective without emotional investment, and whether or not emotional investment can be created through artificial means.
- A guy dies.
- You watch a small, disobedient boy run away from his mother and towards a well – you could have shouted at him, but didn’t in time. He falls in and drowns, but you step away before the distraught mother notices you.
- Two small, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls are walking in the grass near the edge of a canyon. The grass is tall enough that neither of the twins can see the cliff’s edge, and both of them are young enough that you know they don’t know any better. Both girls are talking, laughing, smiling, and gathering flowers. You walk closer to them, and as one brushes the hair out of her face to tuck a flower behind her ear, you recognize them! They are your little sisters, who have walked far enough away from your mom that they can’t hear her anymore. As they walk towards a bunch of light purple flowers on the other side of the canyon, you realize that neither of them will see the edge before it is too late and both will fall to their deaths. But! You realize that you are close enough to the girls that you can save one of them – if you run towards them (now!) and push one, she will fall into her twin sister, saving her life, but sending her twin, screaming, to her death. You’re not close enough to save both, there’s nobody else around, yelling at them will scare them into falling, and they’re too far away to hear you talk. Nothing you can do will change the choice you have to make.
Let us think about the choices, reactions, and meaning for each of these stories.
People die all the time. There isn’t anything you could have done for them, and you don’t know him anyway. Not much of a reaction.
The boy shouldn’t have run away from his mother, and he was being disobedient anyway. It’s sad, though, that he died. You could have shouted to save his life – maybe he would have tripped or veered away from his doom. You don’t know the boy, however, and after the news settled down, you would probably get over it. You’re not directly responsible for his death, just for the action that could have saved it. The mother didn’t even see you there.
You could do nothing – let both of your small twin sisters fall to their deaths. You could even pretend you were not there, or say that you didn’t notice them, or if you did, that it was too late. There’s nobody left alive to refute your lies – you could get away with it. You could try to save them both, perhaps by trying to catch both of them or by yelling – either option resulting in both of their deaths. Or, you could rush forward, throwing yourself into one of them, watching her fall into her twin, and then both of you watching as she is pushed over the edge and falls down the side of the canyon wall, her head banging against it only once before she crashes into the unforgiving ground below and spasms once, never to move again. You’ve saved one life, but directly caused the death of her best friend and twin sister. Is is worth it to save one twin but kill the other? Is the remaining twin’s life worth living without her birth mate and lifelong companion? Is the second twin’s death your fault?
As is evident in the above, the longer I make the story and the more detailed and personal it is to you, the more questions appear, the harder the answers get, the more convoluted the justification required, the more upset with me you are that I asked the question. In other words, the closer to reality, the more the decision matters to you = the more effective the thought experiment.
Let us take the simplest incarnation of the trolley problem. The trolley’s brakes have broken, and it’s on the track headed towards 5 people. You’re at the switchboard, and if you pull the switch, the trolley will switch to a track that only has one person on it. This seems like a simple choice – in a 5 v 1 situation, most of us choose to kill only one. That doesn’t help! This is about ethics! To make the hypothetical thought experiment hit a little closer to home, we take away the switchboard and introduce a bridge. You are on the bridge over the trolley tracks with a fat man. If you push the fat man off the bridge into the trolley’s path, he will stop the trolley and save the people, otherwise, you watch the runaway trolley smash five unawares. This makes people think more about what they’re doing (Oh, good! Thinking! That means we’re doing ethics!) because they are more involved. I can think of other ways to make the trolley problem more involved, but what that comes down to is trying to make it more like reality.
Turns out, the closer things are to reality, the more real they feel.
The consequence of the above is that thought experiments just don’t do their job unless the participants are emotionally invested. The closer to reality the situation gets, the more invested they become, and the more effective the thought experiment is as a result. Unfortunately, there are some reasons why we shouldn’t skip the thought part and go right to experimenting, and that’s probably just because we’d kill lots of people.
With a finite population, health and safety laws, and time constraints kept in mind, how can traditional trolley problems be modified to introduce the level of emotional involvement needed for them to be effective?
I humbly suggest virtual reality.
The experience of even the simplest trolley problem becomes intensely, immediately personal when you can see and hear the people you’re going to smash, feel the switchboard lever in your hands, hear the desperate shouts of the trolley driver and the squealing of the useless brakes, (and dare I overstep the bounds of technology) smell the oil and dust in the air, and feel it as you start to sweat and one drop runs down your forehead and splashes on your hand. Your adrenaline levels spike – you have the fates of six people on your hands and what do you do because you have to make a choice and you have to make it now!
Making the situation immediate, intense, unfold in real-time, up to the participant and as real as it can possibly be makes any participant react how they actually would react if it would happen in real life. Their reaction – whether it be paralysis, indecision, running away, throwing the switch or not throwing the switch – will be as genuine and uncontrived as it could possibly be, and that is more valuable than any preconceived notion or plan they might have had. What you did do is more important that what you could have done or planned to do.
After a participant has made their choice, watched the (undoubtedly bloody) aftermath, felt the guilt, shame, relief, or anxiety associated with their choice, they would remove the virtual reality hardware, and, given the opportunity, think about what they just did. Did they kill five people and save one? Did they kill one person and save five? Did they make their choice based on numbers? Emotion? Logic? Did they freak the frak out and unwillingly make the choice not to throw the switch?
As the participant ponders how the choice they made affected others and their own mental well-being, they are offered the chance to change their minds. The five or one people (person) from the virtual reality scenario are (is) dead, but after careful consideration, the participant can decide for themselves. Is there a right choice to make? Why or why not? Did they make the right choice? Why or why not? Would you do it differently if you had to do it again? Why or why not?
Personal emotional investment is required for traditional trolley problem thought experiments to be successful. Trolley problem thought experiments do not spontaneously generate the personal emotional investment needed for success. Through the careful use of virtual reality scenarios, trolley problem thought experiments can generate a situation life-like enough to generate a genuine response from participants based on personal emotional investment.