The Trolley Problem from Jeremy Stangroom

Jeremy Stangroom posted  a link on philosop-l to his site, where he has given 4 problems interactive electronic versions.  I’m using a link here to all 4 problems, but I’ve only looked at the trolley problem.  It seems to me very well done, but that’s not quite what we’re going on to look at.

We’ve had some worries about the trolley problem before, but there’s a discussion of it on philosop-l that draws our attention to a problem we haven’t discussed; Ron Anumdson raises the  issue, which is this:  In one version of the problem, the options are to push a fat man from the bridge or not.  Should we find thatoffensive?

And if it is offensive, just why is it offensive?  One thing that may strike one about the discussion on philosop-l is that the critical terms are not very precise, to say the least.  Most of it is in the terms Anumdson introduces:  does it contain a sub-text that  fat people are not as valuable as others?  Eventually Rob Helpy-Chalk does introduce the idea that intentionally or not it could hurt someone’s feelings.  Everyone is aware that the individual has to be very large, and someone suggests making him a football player.

I confess that the reference to the fat person seems to be really unfortunate.  Does it to you?  What do you think is bad about it? 

My own sense is that the problem is linked to the problems involved in using terms for diabilities in similar contexts.  That would perhaps mean that it reinforces the way we let a person’s weight take over their whole identity, and it presents the person as simply a cog in a problem.  We mightn’t mind letting a reference to a football player just signal a cog in a problem, because they do not have trouble, generally speaking, with being discriminated against here, there, and everywhere.

Or is it something else?  Or nothing at all?   Let us know  your opinion.

41 thoughts on “The Trolley Problem from Jeremy Stangroom

  1. The fact that the person was fat didn’t register with me in the way that you mention as a large weight is what’s required to stop the train. I suppose that a football player, or perhaps a large weightlifter, could have been used but part of the ‘test’ is to see how we seperate out emotional responses from rational responses. If the fact that the person in question is fat influences the decision then this may indeed illustrate that the responder’s response is more emotional than rational.

    My responses were:

    Is torture always wrong? Yes

    Is morality about maximising total happiness? No

    Is it always wrong to cause another person’s death? Yes

    Should you always save the lives of innocent people? Yes

    Should Casey Jones divert the train? Yes

    Should the fat man be pushed onto the track? No

    Should the saboteur be pushed onto the track? No

    Should the fat man be tortured? No

    Apparently I’m morally inconsistent with a score of only 83%

  2. I find it offensive, and I suspect the use of the word “fat” is intended to draw sympathy away from the man on the bridge, to put a bigger wedge between our intutions in the two cases.

    I have long taught the trolley problem in my ethics classes, and usually substitute “large” — sometimes describing the person further as a weight lifter or football player.

    Of course, my students’ next question is often : “well if he’s big enough to stop a train, how am I supposed to push him anywhere?”

  3. RRRJ, it really shouldn’t be so intended, because it then constitutes a flaw in the attempt to construct parallel cases. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a flaw.

    Simon, o La Di Da! I got a score of 100% in moral consistency. I actually think that makes me suspect, so in fact my heart did not leap up with joy.

  4. Just so you have some data:

    30% elect to throw the fat man off the bridge (presumably some people just for straightforward non weight-related reasons)

    86% elect to divert the train

    It’s been completed about 3500 times.

    I’m not that bothered about the fat man thing. But I knew it would be contentious (which actually is part of the reason why I chose “Should You Kill the Fat Man?” as the title).

    I think we discussed this issue a bit on the blog post about this activity at Talking Philosophy.

  5. Jeremy, thanks for stopping by.

    What percentage get 100% consistent?

    I suppose one could worry about how very heavy people taking the test feel. Are such students going to feel humiliated in a class discussion about throwing fat people in front of trains?

    We’ve found out that phrases like “blind review” can be very upsetting to disabled people, for reasons relating in part to what I said in the post about it, but also for the associations it reinforces.


  6. Why not just the organ donating case instead? You’re in a hospital. 5 kids need organs or they’ll die in an hour. You have one healthy kid with 5 good organs sitting there.

  7. A classmate in my moral philosophy seminar a few years back reported that fewer people elect to push him if he’s called “large” instead of “fat.” I don’t know the source for that, but if it’s true, I think it shows a very problematic feature of these examples: our intuitions may be responding to facts that are not meant to be at issue. And in that, the example may be encouraging oppressive attitudes.

  8. @JJ – currently running at 34% are 100% consistent. Thing is, it’s a lot easier to be consistent if you disavow the utilitarian statement, so that score is more interesting when you start doing cross-analysis.

    Well I’m not sure about “very heavy” people – since that could include somebody who is 6ft 7in and plays professional rugby – but I suppose it’s possible that a fat person might feel humiliated.

    The truth is I just don’t care. I don’t know why. Not very helpful, I realise, but there you go!

    Tell you what, though, I’m bald. My hair fell out when I was in my early twenties. I’m wondering whether I have grounds for complaint about the fact that the Sorites paradox is (often) illustrated using a story about a bald man. Thing is, there was nothing I could do about my hair falling out, but when I got fat, it was because I stuffed my face with doughnuts.

    @Carl – Much harder to isolate your variables if you move it away from the Trolley scenario.

  9. @Duckrabbit – Well I’ve heard everything now. The Trolley Problem encouraging oppressive attitudes towards fat people. So presumably the counterfactual is that in a world where Phillipa Foot hadn’t come up with the Trolley Problem, fat people would be less oppressed.

    Fantastic. But completely absurd.

    Sorry I can’t take this seriously. Have fun people.

  10. Oh bosh–of course I’d push the fat guy onto the track. I’m a simple utilitarian and have never taken an ethics course.

    As for fat, the salient feature of the victim is size and weight to stop a trolly, and “fat’ just captures that. “Large” doesn’t because we don’t normal call people “large.” It also makes one worry: is he large enough to actually stop a trolley? As for the football player, this does introduce further features that distract from the pure mechanical issues involved. I’d be afraid that football player would push back–and beat the crap out of me if I tried to push him off.

    Maybe to test what’s going on with our intuitions we can come up with an alternative version that involves plugging a pipe with a slim person.

  11. Umm… I’m not really sure if this is how that comment was meant, but weight issues are not simply a matter of choosing to stuff one’s face with doughnuts. Of course it can be, but there’s also those with genetic factors, thyroid problems, side effects of certain medications, etc. Further, those in the US who use food shelves and food stamps are generally more likely to be overweight because the most inexpensive food is extremely unhealthy and they don’t have the luxury of choosing an apple over a doughnut.

  12. Jeremy, I think my remark doesn’t sound as absurd if you couch it in a deontological framework — rather than a consequentialist, imagined-counterfactual-worlds mode of evaluation.

    The argument is more like: research suggests that the trolley problem (when phrased using the word “fat”) invites people to engage in lookist reasoning. Making that invitation is morally wrong, I think. Not because the a counterfactual world where it is not done is one with less total oppression, but because that invitation has wrong-making features all its own.

  13. I always include the scenario when doing trolley problems in my ethics course, and it’s always at about this point that students stop taking them seriously (which is, I must confess, where I’m going with them in the first place).

    I’m somewhat amused at Stangroom’s irrelevant response to Duckrabbit; the relevant counterfactual wouldn’t be that they would be less oppressed without the trolley problem but that we wouldn’t be having discussions, purportedly in the name of ethics, that presuppose that pushing fat people in front of trains because they are fat could even be on the table as an option to be seriously discussed, which would ordinarily be something that would only be contemplated, even in the abstract, by someone with an irrational distaste for people who are overweight. One really wonders what Thomson was thinking when she came up with it. I’m not sure it does, in fact, encourage oppressive attitudes (my students, at least, usually express considerable sympathy for the man in the scenario), but it doesn’t take much thought to see why someone might raise it as a worry. Particularly since fat men end up being killed in a lot of standard examples of this sort; they get drowned in caves, blown up by dynamite, shoved in front of trains; there just is no happily ever after for the fat man in the ethics problem — he’ll die one way or another.

  14. Duckrabbit also made a point that seems now to have dropped out of the discussion– that intuitions may be affected by whether the man is described as ‘fat’ or ‘large’. This would be easy to test, and interesting to find out.

  15. that’s why i got into philosophy: i love having discussions with people who think “now i’ve heard everything” is a substantive response to a worry.

    why do so many philosophers suddenly forget everything they know about rational inquiry the second the topic of equality comes up?

  16. I like Duckrabbit’s point about the man’s fatness possibly interfering with our intuitions. Bernard Williams argued (didn’t he?) that how one describes a thought experiment affects the intuitions it evokes. An example, which I think is his, concerns one of the thought experiments used in discussions of personal identity. A standard case used in favour of the idea that memory is what determines personal identity claims that if my body is going to be tortured, but my memories are first removed and put into another body, then I won’t mind the body being tortured because intuitively I’m no longer in it (so to speak). Tell it another way, however, and get a different result. Not only am I going to be tortured, but all my memories are going to be removed and put in someone else’s head. The whole thing is intuitively terrible.

    (I’m not expressing this very well, but hopefully you get the idea.)

    So really not that surprising if the man’s being fat means we have less sympathy for him, and are more inclined to think he should be pushed off.

  17. not surprising, and also surely something that needs to be discussed (if the trolley problem & the like are going to be useful for anything at all).

  18. These puzzles are not designed for people (me) with MS.

    First off, Jeremy Standingroom? Sure, it doesn’t actually say that is his name, but already, my poor vision has colored (ha ha) my impression of The Puzzler.

    Second off, what the H does “second off” mean? Nothing. So why is it acceptable for me to say “first off?”

    By now I wish I could remember the original questions, a couple seemed clearly faulty, but I can’t remember what I read two minutes ago.

    Uh, because, “I too, am a turtle?”

    and how many commas should that sentence have?

  19. 4 Aces, that’s such a great pic; I’m trying to include it in this comment.

    from 4 Aces

    It needs formatting to make it smaller, and I can’t see how to do that.

  20. @ Kathryn: Actually, one could argue that weight issues are nothing more than choosing to stuff one’s face with doughnuts. The factors you mention might make those choices more difficult, such as lowering one’s necessary calorie intake without also lowering appetite, or making it difficult to access food that isn’t high in calories. But anyone who simply eats less will lose weight: neither medication nor genes can violate the laws of physics. In that respect, overeating is much like alcoholism: it’s harder for some of us to refuse a drink, but everyone can do it if they have the desire.

  21. C, your comment is ill-informed; note the non-food causes of being overweight that Kathryn mentioned.

  22. @jj: Did you read what I said? Those things do not *cause* weight gain; *food* causes weight gain. Those things may make it more difficult to resist eating too much food, but that’s it. Medication or genetics do not make you gain weight without some calorie intake.

  23. C, what I should have said is that your treatment of the extra factors is ill-informed. I got distracted, having decided not to go with an initial comment.

    It is simply not true that we have any firm evidence that weight gain from all those conditions comes from eating more. But if you eat the same “normal” diet and then gain weight as a result of the medication, it looks correct to say that the meds caused the weight gain, particularly if they do so by changing one’s metabolism.

  24. @jj: “It is simply not true that we have any firm evidence that weight gain from all those conditions comes from eating more.” There’s a basic physiological fact here: take in more calories than what’s required by your metabolism, you gain weight. It’s true that you can eat N calories without weight gain, then take a medication that makes eating N calories lead to weight gain. But if you don’t want to be overweight, then you decrease your calorie intake, and then you don’t gain weight, while still being on the medication. That might be difficult, or unpleasant, but it’s perfectly possible if one’s priorities are set up to do so. That weight has to come from food, somehow or another, that a person makes a choice to eat, somehow or another.

  25. C, what is at issue is whether it is correct to say that those things do cause weight gain. It looks as though it is, if taking it while keeping one’s diet the same, leads to weight gain. It just fits standard criteria for what is correctly said to be a cause.

    Would it be a good idea to adjust one’s priorites and cut one’s food consumption significantly down when one’s taking meds for schizophrenia, cancer, etc?? Well, I don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t assume it is.

    Further, cutting down on calories may not be effective for very long, since one’s body starts to adjust to reduced calories by using less.

  26. And the people who have no access to nutritious food because of the class system? I guess they should change their spending priorities. I bet if they bought no clothes and gave up their homes, they’d be able to afford shopping somewhere that carries produce. And if they set their priorites straight they’d consent to eat it raw, having given up the kitchen.

    It’s all a matter of priorities! I think I see the light.

  27. I wonder if C believes in mugging. “Give me your wallet or I’ll shoot” — that’s just about priorities too. If you cared enough about your wallet, you would choose to take a bullet for it. If you don’t value your wallet enough to do what’s needed, well, no harm no foul.

  28. This is so off track from the main point of discussion, but it’s interesting, so I’ll continue.

    A clear case of a drug, or genetics, causing some physiological change, would be when taking a drug causes a rash, or your genes cause you to have red hair. In these cases, there’s nothing you can do about it. To avoid that allergic rash, you just have to not take the drug, and dying your hair doesn’t count.

    Another clear case would be if there’s only some chance that a drug or genetic sequence will cause some physiological change. Perhaps smoking, and certain genetic sequences like the BRCA gene, cause cancer in this sense. Again, if you happen to be unlucky, there’s nothing you can do.

    Weight gain is not a clear case in this sense. There is no one in the world who will not lose weight if they cut down on calories (which is why anorexia is a dangerous condition, no matter who has it, no matter what meds are being taken, and no matter what the person’s genes are like). Now, whether cutting ones calories is the right thing to do is another question, as you mention; it would seem ill-advised for a person to prioritize her/his weight over recovering properly from cancer. And in people without disease who are not taking medication, perhaps there are cases where not overeating would lead to depression or something, in which case we should not blame them for having the priorities they do. However, it’s still a matter of priority and choice.

  29. @Duckrabbit: Do you really think I’m that stupid? And what does it even mean to ask whether I believe in mugging? I’m pretty sure muggings occur, and I’m pretty sure they’re bad.

  30. Priorities and choice? Are we thinking conscious ones? If so, that doesn’t look entirely plausible to me.

    I should say that work by theorists such as Sejnowski, Dayan and Montague, along with that of many others, really raises for me the question of whether philosophers have much idea of what the initiation of action looks like. Added to that what obesity research says about the body’s resistance to weight loss and the neural mechanisms of food choices, and I’m skeptical. And of course before anything like that comes into play, we need to look at who has the right information.

    I can’t access the following article through my library’s online service, but from references to it recently in the NY Times suggest that David S. Ludwig, a prominent obesity researcher, thinks there are fairly decisive unconscious factors at play:

    Extra Calories Cause Weight Gain– But How Much? Katan, Martijn B. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 6, 2010.

    Just in my own defense, I should say that my views on this are published, and they’ve been presented at a number of APA’s and other conferences, so if the views are off the wall, they are peer-reviewed off the wall.

  31. to clarify: what’s published are my views about how we need to reunderstand the explanation of action.

  32. @jj: Those are good points to bring up. It does help to distinguish conscious from unconscious choice, and it’s clear that some people who may consciously want to abstain from overeating are unable to abstain at some given moment (perhaps like Frankfurt’s unwilling addict).

    And I wouldn’t want to say that every action is the result of a conscious process of deliberation. However, in the long run, it seems reasonable to say that we can alter our behavior by conscious choices. I may not be able to fight the temptation to eat the ice cream, so knowing that, I make the decision to change my route home so that I don’t go by the ice cream store. Or if I really need help in not eating ice cream, I’ll seek the help of others.

    I suspect that if obesity were stigmatized as much as alcoholism, or as much as smoking seems to be going toward, there would be fewer obese people. That’s not to say that such a stigma would be a good thing: it’s just to say that inducing social shame would have the effect of altering people’s priorities about overeating, and reduce (but not eliminate) obesity.

    That JAMA article you mentioned doesn’t speak to this issue that much, except to make it clear that there’s not a linear relationship between food consumption/abstention and weight gain/loss, and that, from a public health perspective, addressing obesity will require major changes. From the “Implications” section: “These calculations suggest that small changes in lifestyle would have a minor effect on obesity prevention. Walking an extra mile a day expends, roughly, an additional 60 kcal compared with resting–equal to the energy in a small cookie. Physiological considerations suggest that the apparent energy imbalance for much of the US population is 5- to 10- fold greater, far beyond the ability of most individuals to address on a personal level. Rather, an effective public health approach to obesity prevention will require fundamental changes in the food supply and the social infrastructure. Changes of this nature depend on more stringent regulation of the food industry, agricultural policy informed by public health, and investments by government in the social environment to promote physical activity.”

    So one thing that’s at issue is their statement that this is “far beyond the ability of most individuals to address on a personal level.” How do they know this? I suspect this is more likely to be true for some than for others. Some people really enjoy overeating, and see no reason to do otherwise. Some people might really hate overeating, and it may be difficult for them to get out of situations that are conducive to overeating. And, of course, some people might just be ignorant about food, and have no idea what overeating is. But it doesn’t seem to me that it’s out of anyone’s control. I almost find that offensive, like saying that it’s far beyond the ability of most people to understand Marx. No, it’s not, but most people don’t want to, or they have what they consider better things to do, or it will take time for them to increase their literacy. But except for cases of mental illness, I think it’s demeaning to say that understanding Marx is simply beyond what a person can do, just as I think it’s demeaning to say that it’s beyond what a person can do to not overeat.

    I haven’t published on these issues, but I find some of the work by Foddy and Savulescu rather compelling (they have an article forthcoming in Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology addressing this very issue).

  33. H.E. *GASP!* I’m shocked! I take it you’ve never sparred with a woman that weighs in at around 17 stone. Trust me, a big&chubby person isn’t necessarily “weaker” than a big&more obviously muscular person. The chubby woman in question knocked me ON MY ASS with one shot to the solar plexus. I was padded, too. I have to use my knees to muster a blow with that kind of force behind it!

    As for the test, my prof used a different version of it (the flooded cave). My first instinct in dangerous situations–like trying to get traumatized women out of crashed cars, etc.–is to start screaming at people to MOVE IT!! OR WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!! I have to admit, I’m at my most level-headed in those situations. Something about the endorphin rush or something. Remember James Cameron’s movie trick of switching to slo-mo right before the action in T2? That’s exactly what danger does to my headspace. My instinct is leaning toward taking a slightly pushy vote, and giving the fat man a choice, but I’d have to check out the test first. Sounds like fun.

  34. Now I’m POSITIVE your spam problem happens when 2 or more people hit submit simultaneously. Can you post my fat man comment please?

    And H.E., that was a friendly *GASP!* :-)

  35. ARGH! I couldn’t even finish that test! What about screaming out the window GET OUT OF THE WAY! while throwing a rope to the poor guy stuck on the side of the car? What about getting on the radio and telling the city TURN OFF THE JUICE!! WE”RE ABOUT TO CRASH!! What about somehow trying to knock out the wire that supplies the juice (electricity) to the train? Jeremy, didn’t you see Heath Ledger’s final performance? Sometimes a group of people fed up enough with being villified can stand together in a “no-win” rat maze experiment and do amazing things. Oskar Schindler, anybody?

    This is why I’ve always hated either/or propositions.
    Nothing personal, Jeremy. After a few more years of getting my head around some more theory, I might be able to offer something constructive on how to fix the glitches in tests like this. Sorry all I can offer right now is such a visceral response.

    As far as the fat-phobia thing, I half-wonder if the reaction is toward a cartoon or video game fat man, because the test paramaters are SO hypothetical, and they don’t translate well to RL. Kinda like “oh well, it’s just one of those little Myers Briggs type thingies that can tell me whether I’m more like Jean Luc Picard or Deanna Troi. Fat guy might as well be a virtual moose or a flying saucer. Let’s blow him up just for laughs”

    I wonder if the same people that said “ditch the fat guy” would be the same people that would tell you that they would take the blue pill and go back to sleep if they were Neo in The Matrix. That’s just something I noticed about the group of frosh I got stuck studying with. Some young privileged kids seem to have trouble differentiating between VL, and metaphor/allegory that’s supposed to carry over into moral reasoning in RL.

  36. C- I think jj pretty well covered the issue, but I just want to say one more thing. My mother has a thyroid condition. I am thin- she is not. She eats very healthy, and very little- I do not. She exercises regularly- I do not. Beyond the fact that I think this is pretty good evidence for the fact that losing weight is not just a matter of eating less and exercising more- I think it shows why we shouldn’t shame people or suggest their weight is a matter of morality. If we punish people for being fat- the other side of that coin is rewarding people for being thin. Why should I be rewarded for being thin when I don’t work for it?

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