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Trenz Pruca’s Trolley Test: or are you as moral as you think you are?

July 1, 2012

The Trolley Test I:

There is a standard experiment in psychological literature to test ones moral principles and it goes something like this:

Assume you are a conductor of a trolley and you see five people on the track ahead of you but you know you will be unable to stop in time to avoid striking and killing them. Assume also that you can switch on to another track and avoid hitting them. Unfortunately, in this latter case you will strike and kill a single person.

1. What will you do?

2. Will your answer be the same if:
a. The individual on the track switched to is a women,
b. A child, or
c. Someone you know?

3. Did you really think you would be able to make this decision within the clearly short time you have to make it or will you be so paralyzed by this moral dilemma that you will be unable to decide, thus killing five people by your indecision?

4. Which decision would make you feel least guilty afterwards?

Note: I have varied the questions a bit from the standard experiment.

The Trolley Test II:

Now let us assume that in the example above, instead of the option of switching to an alternative track to avoid the trolley killing the five people on the track, you are on a bridge above the track, beside you stands a fat man. You know that the fat man, if he fell on the tracks, would stop the trolley and save the five people. Would you throw him off?

Now right here I must stop and admit I have a problem. By describing this person as a “Fat” man, my liberal leanings would force me to hesitate while I examine whether or not my progressive values are offended by the stereotype, causing me, in true liberal fashion, to do nothing, resulting in the inevitable death of five people.

Now in order to avoid the sticky emotional problem of physically touching the person you intend to kill, assume the fat man is suspended in a basket above the tracks to be released to fall upon the tracks and stop the Trolley by you pressing a button.

1. Would you press the button now?

2. Would your answer be the same if the person in the basket was:
a. Adolf Hitler (or if you need a person in being, say Moammar Gaddafi),
b. Mother Theresa or Albert Einstein (or, Suu Kyi),
c. Michelle Bachman, (or the Republican of your choice)
d. Barak Obama (or Michael Moore or some other liberal you find obnoxious)
e. A young pregnant woman,
f. A child or,
e. One of your close relatives or friends?

3. Would you throw yourself off that bridge instead of any one of the above?

Trolley Test III:

Now let us look at the 5 woebegone people on the track facing the onslaught of the out of control trolley car.

Would your answer to the questions in the last to posts be the same if those five people were:

 
1. Illegal aliens, Mexicans fleeing from the border patrol.

2. Nuns.

3. Children between the ages of 3 and 8 years of age.

4. Ghetto teenagers decked out in their colors or whatever else it is that they use today.

5. Your children or other members of your family.

While obviously this test cannot be validly used for scientific analysis, lacking controls, priming and the other techniques required by this type of scientific study, I have used it to explore my own biases and morals. I have found in my case not only do my morals and ethics sadly range from situational to essentially nonexistent, but that without a doubt I would be so fearful and indecisive that I know that I would be unable to act relegating 5 people to their certain death.

But what about the default option, the one that says these five people are somewhere they should not be, whether through intent, mistake or ill-fortune they should not be there so what happens to them is not my fault? I should feel neither guilt for their misfortune nor take it upon myself to weigh their lives against any other. If I was the motorman and could not stop, it is their problem and not mine to play God.

On the other hand what about if they were my children or family members? What then?

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