Off Your Trolley

Something really has to be done about this blog! I mean, it’s been veering off track to reflect my capricious tendencies with diversions to Gareth Southgate’s sad face and kimchee without even the slightest regard for The Greater Good. This week, I’m pulling the lever to get back on the right rails with some serious moral philosophy…

Trolley problems, in their modern day incarnation, were introduced by the philosopher Philippa Foot, but continue to generate a slew of studies in psychology and neuroscience in a bid to better understand the basis of moral judgment and decision-making. You probably already know it, but in essence the problem (dilemma) involves a trolley hurtling on a track, with a lever that will switch the trolley to one of two tracks. On one is (for example) one person tied to the track and unable to move, on the other five people similarly tied and unable to move. You can control the lever. Which track do you choose?

trolley1trolley 2

You can play around with trolley problems – for example you can place your own child or Cameron Diaz on one track and Hitler, Jeremy Hunt, all the remaining members of One Direction and Zayn on the other. See, suddenly those of you who thought this was a no-brainer numbers equation are starting to think a little deeper!

That psychology and neuroscience seek to engage with philosophy is undoubtedly a good thing. If only, when devising their studies, most sought to get some bona fide philosophers on board! I won’t list all the psychology and neuroscience studies on the topic, here’s a summary of the hundreds that have been conducted since 1900.  The thrust of my point here (and I acknowledge it’s shared by some of those scientists) is that trolley problems don’t tell us an awful lot about the psychology of moral judgment. They are a philosophical puzzle.

The psychology and neuroscience of moral judgments should focus on telling us why people often act in certain (moral, immoral or amoral) ways and, perhaps, what we can do about that. However, way too many psychologists in the area are guilty of falling in to committing the naturalistic fallacy – assuming what is the case is what ought to be the case. A prime example here is Lawrence Kohlberg who didn’t so much fall in to that naturalistic fallacy as looked it up and down, said it’s dad was the milkman, and set about assaulting it with a numb chucker constructed from under-powered t tests.

A flash of light on a scan when asked to choose between killing 1 or 5 people is really just the brain’s conscious response a fancy numerical task: it doesn’t invoke the emotion, the relationships, or what judgments you make when you are looking those people in the eye, because moral judgments are fundamentally social judgments, and embedded in our relationships with others.

The simplicity of trolley problems offers sharp relief on some fundamental questions: that probably explains their appeal and longevity. Even better, you can play around with the scenario… if your solution is inaction – blame Southern Rail signalling for the dilemma and hence deny culpability – think about a baby hurtling downhill in a pram towards the M6 with only an (open) gate to prevent imminent catastrophe. You can close the gate, “action,” or leave it open, “omission”. In that case, even a psychopath knows what they should do: psychopaths just prefer not to do it.


And so we come to the sort of real-world dilemmas psychologists ought to be studying: to act or not to act? The truth is, faced with clearly immoral behaviour by a superior, a raft of studies in psychology show us that many people stand by and do nothing; they become bystanders who either think they’re merely powerless to do anything or trying to ameliorate a situation with a bad boss. Many everyday judgments are awash with abrogation of responsibility. But in such cases, really, there is total moral equivalence between acting and not acting because the outcomes are the same. (For the truly devout, I should mention that Shira Haviv and I did a study many years ago looking, a bit as an aside, at this form of consequentialist thinking in children and adolescents.)

Saying you can’t do anything is a lame excuse and the pursuit of self-interest. In fact, from a psychological perspective, I suspect much of our psychological reasoning about trolley-like problems in everyday life is to do with how we perceive our ability to operate or access the lever – and how we justify our impotence to ourselves. And even if you can’t pull the lever, you ought to be clear what you think the person pulling the lever must do. You cannot bequeath your moral responsibility to someone else. You always have choice. And if you don’t act in any way you can, you’re still making a decision, and you’re just as culpable as they are if you throw your hands in the air, cover your ears and close your eyes, and do nothing.


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