Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Trolley Problem

Philippa Foot, the English philosopher who put forth the Trolley Problem, recently died (“Philippa Foot, Renowned Philosopher, Dies at 90,” NYT, l0/9/10). The Trolley Problem is one of those conundrums like the Prisoner’s Dilemma that presents ethical decisions in a utilitarian context. In short, a run-away trolley is about to kill five track men, but can be diverted so that it will only kill one worker. What should the driver do? Clearly, by diverting the tram, the driver is playing God, deciding who shall live and who shall die. In addition, implicit in the seemingly rational decision to kill one man over five is the notion that life can be quantitatively valued. Surely five lives are worth more than one. But are they? The United States sentenced many of the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to horrible deaths in which they were literally incinerated in order to force a Japanese surrender. But this nuclear holocaust saved many lives. The firebombing of Dresden is a lesser example. Ironically, the U.S. implementation of similar tactics in later wars—napalming in Vietnam and massive air assaults, most recently in Iraq—proved to be far less successful. It’s as if the tram that mowed down the one track worker became a possessed evil spirit and returned to knock off the other five. However difficult these arguments become, underlying them is a belief in the power or reason, rationality and logic. Significantly, Foot, who was the granddaughter of Grover Cleveland, was an activist and obviously a believer in the possibility of making decisions for the Greater Good, as evidenced in her having helped to create Oxfam.

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