Trolley Troubles: Why We Should Be Skeptical of Moral Cognition Testing Based on Hypothetical Situations

By Edwards, Chris | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Trolley Troubles: Why We Should Be Skeptical of Moral Cognition Testing Based on Hypothetical Situations


Edwards, Chris, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IMAGINE THE FOLLOWING SCENARIO: YOU ARE standing next to a fork in a railroad line where there is a switch. There are five workers on the one track and one worker on the other track. A trolley car is hurtling down the track and is about to hit and kill the five workers unless you throw the switch and divert the car down the other branch, thereby killing the one worker instead. Would you throw the switch to kill one worker in order to save five? Most people say that they would. In a second scenario, you are standing on a bridge next to a large man. The trolley is once again speeding down the track and is about to hit and kill the five workers, unless you push the large man onto the track, killing him but stopping the car, thereby killing the one in order to save five. Would you throw the man? Most people say that they would not.

This is a classic thought experiment first proposed in 1967 by the philosopher Phillipa Foot that has since become ingrained into a hot new area of research called Moral Cognition Testing (MCT) that is being employed by psychologists and philosophers who study human behavior and the brain as they relate to morality. A 2011 Discover magazine article entitled "The End of Morality" by Kristin Ohlson, for example, profiled the work of Harvard scientists Joshua Greene and Fiery Cushman, who present people with a variety of such moral scenarios and then ask for responses. For example: A runaway hot dog cart hurtles toward a group of bicyclists. Should you push the cart into a crowd, killing three people, or let the cart slam into some passing bicyclists, killing a dozen? Another scenario, which purportedly stumped Greene in a high school debate and made him rethink his utilitarian philosophy, involves asking whether or not it would be moral to kill a single person and harvest his organs so that five people might live. Supposedly, both scenarios involve the same type of reasoning and involve the same outcomes so there is little moral difference.

There are two problems with the above dilemmas. To begin with, nothing in the real world operates in such a clean way with limited and perfectly predictable outcomes. I would not shove the hot dog cart into a crowd because it reduces a crucial component of the scenario: time. In the real world, acting quickly in that situation reduces the probability that someone would scream and alert the riders or that one of the riders would see the cart and actually move. By shoving the cart, I've immediately caused the deaths of bystanders. By reducing time, I've reduced the probabilities of possibly better outcomes. In the real world, actions do not usually have such absolute endings, and presenting people with absolutes does not really help to ascertain how they reason morally. For the second scenario, I would not kill the man and harvest his organs, and I would not do so for good utilitarian reasons. Killing the man may at first appear to be the best action for the most people, but in fact doing so would give moral justice to a concept that over time would create a great amount of fear and uncertainty that would eventually do more damage to more people. If society considered it morally justifiable to kill people who were sitting in waiting rooms, even for good reasons, then hospital visits would likely decline and human misery would increase. The scenarios are not similar because, while runaway hot dog carts are likely singular events, hospital bystanders are common. One can't compare the two because the effects of action in the second scenario have larger societal outcomes.

The other favored scenario, described by Greene, involves a crying baby and some hypothetical soldiers. Imagine yourself in a room holding your hand over your daughter's mouth to prevent her from crying. Evil soldiers are outside, hunting you and your family and friends. Should you remove your hand and let the baby breathe and thus alert the genocidal soldiers, or should you preserve the hiding place by smothering the baby? …

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