Death Of The Trolley Problem: Ethicists Argue For An End To Everyone's Favorite Moral Dilemma

Brain MRI
Scientists have used the trolley problem in neuroimaging studies to find out how people make decisions. Creative Commons

The trolley problem may be the most famous thought experiment in the world. A runaway trolley barrels toward five unsuspecting people. You’re standing on a bridge above the tracks and realize you may be able to stop the trolley by dropping something heavy in its path, like, say, that fat man standing next to you. Do you push him?

The problem began as a philosopher’s tool to advance abstract ethics arguments. But eventually it found its way into actual experiments by psychologists and neurologists, who asked the question to study the way people make decisions. In a new paper in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass, four business ethicists say that’s taking the trolley too far. It’s just too unrealistic. Why are five people on the tracks? Why aren’t they paying attention? Is anyone actually fat enough to stop a trolley? Who uses the word trolley?

Medical Daily spoke with one of the authors, Dr. Christopher W. Bauman of the University of California, Irvine, to find out why he says the trolley problem has had its day. (We’ve edited for clarity and brevity.)

Did you encounter the trolley problem in your own college courses?

I actually use the trolley problem when teaching ethics, and I think it can be a very useful illustrator of different types of reasoning. It was created by philosophers who are interested in figuring out the normative answer, or what people ought to do. Our concern is that these scenarios have been co-opted and applied in really the wrong way.

For example?

There are some incredibly well-known studies. One of them was published in Science. It’s been cited almost 1,000 times in about [13] years since publication. In this particular study, the researchers put people in an fMRI scanner. They showed them the trolley problem and other similar scenarios. And their conclusions were that these particular scenarios solicited moral judgment and that now we know a lot about moral judgment based on these scenarios.

What’s wrong with that?

What we’re arguing in our paper is that these scenarios are unlike any moral judgment that people actually engage in in their real lives. It’s not common to confront a situation that gives you this binary choice that’s as plain as day. And also it’s pretty amusing. If you really want to study the way people manage moral dilemmas, why are doing that using stimuli that are funny, bizarre and sometimes betray the laws of physics?

But isn’t the trolley problem just a proxy for other, real-life problems?

If we are to believe in the experimental method, then we want control over as many factors as we possibly can so that we minimize the extraneous influences on people’s choice. If we’re using highly stylized scenarios that people freely associate from, we’re leaving many things to chance, and it doesn’t necessarily give us a clean way of testing our hypotheses.

What do you propose then instead of the trolley problem?

Managers often have to figure out, “Who do I lay off and who do I retain?” Drug manufacturers make these kinds of decisions all the time. You have side effects; what’s a reasonable level of tolerance? There are real-world parallels to the basic structure of the trolley dilemma. But why not study how they appear in the real world in believable contexts rather than pushing some fat man off a bridge and his body’s going to stop a train from maiming five people?

Source: D.M. Bartels, C.W. Bauman, P. McGraw, C. Warren. Concerns About Trolley Problems and Other Sacrificial Dilemmas in Moral Psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 2014.

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