The Trolley Problem: Let’s Beat It Up a Little More

That this insipid piece of Pragmatist absurdity has not died, but has generated papers and books and endless pop references makes me suppose that perhaps it needs a stake driven through its black, black heart. Picking up where we left off:

You come across this every-day scene yet again: from a distance amazingly just sufficient to prevent you running up to the victims yet close enough so that all the implications are perfectly clear at a glance, you see 5 men bound and laid across a trolley track. Just before the trolley track reaches the men, there’s a spur off to the right into a blind alley inches wider that the trolley car. Wouldn’t you know it? Right then, at that very moment, an out of control trolley car – your excellent x-ray vision allows you to see that the conductor is not just bending over at the moment and so out of sight,  no, he’s not there at all – comes barreling down the tracks, AND you notice one guy who is working away in the blind alley. AND you just happen to be standing next to a lever that switches the track so that the trolley goes down the spur instead of over the 5 guys. The operation of this lever is instantly known to you.

Don’t you just hate it when this happens?

So, after .5 seconds of consideration, you conclude that 1) miraculously, you have  information certain about all the relevant parts: you know FOR SURE that the 5 guys will get run over and die if you don’t switch to the spur; you know FOR SURE that the dude in the blind alley will die if you do switch to the spur; 2) you have certain knowledge that no one else can do anything to stop the trolley, nor help the tied up men escape, nor alert the guy in the alley.

What evil Daemon has placed you in such predicament? So, what the hell, you pull the lever. Too bad for the guy in the alley, but saving 5 lives at the cost of one seems like the right thing to do.

Oh, the humanity!

Just then, a director jumps in to the scene yelling ‘CUT!’ and the five men, their bonds revealed to be simply props, stand up and various other members of the movie crew appear. ‘WHO THE HELL IS THAT JOKER WHO THREW THE SWITCH?!? GET HIM THE HELL OFF MY SET!’

And then the man in the alley is crushed to death by the now out of control trolley.

Moral: you will never have certain knowledge of outcomes. Moral decisions CANNOT be based on certain knowledge of outcomes, for the simple reason that in all cases that involve a true moral decision, outcomes are at best only more or less likely, given the limits of human understanding.*  Sometimes, as in the case given above, your clear conception of the ends is just plain wrong.  This is a core and inescapable feature of the reality within which moral decisions are made.

Pragmatism, once you cut through  Peirce’s thicket of obfuscatory circumlocutions, is just the theory that the ends justifies the means, and nothing more. Pragmatists want to pretend that what they understand as the ends are sufficiently well understood and desirable to justify crushing the occasional innocent man with a trolley. So to speak.

Thus, the lamentable Dewey, in his defense of Trosky, can give only what amounts to stylistic limits on what may be done to achieve an end.  There’s no hard and fast rules about how many innocent people may be slaughtered to achieve a sufficiently glorious end. As Trotsky said:

The struggle which is in the offing transcends by far the importance of individuals, factions and parties. It is the struggle for the future of all mankind.

Making an omelette, here. Concern for the eggs is misplaced. Just which and how many eggs get broken is up to the omelette maker, who cannot be criticized for his slaughter and lying, except insofar as said slaughter and deceit fail to achieve the glorious end.

Any supposed moral thought experiment wherein perfect knowledge is assumed is about as applicable to the real world as a thought experiment that begins with a unicorn eating green cheese on the moon.

* It also bears keeping in mind that the means chosen form the ends actually achieved. One is as unlikely to achieve peace, kittens and rainbows by indiscriminately killing innocent people as one is unlikely to harvest watermelons after planing corn, for example. Stalin’s and Mao’s failure to achieve the worker’s paradise was assured by their choice of means, even assuming the ends were otherwise obtainable.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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