An actual trolley

We haven’t been that enamored  of the trolley problem as a model of human moral reasoning.  Nonetheless, I did want to bring back from SF a picture of an actual trolley.


And also to report that though Philippa Foot was the inventor of the problem, her presumptive intellectual heir, Michael Thompson (Pitt), was saying at the Pacific APA  conference that she meant it to illustrate a technical problem, and not be a paradigm of moral reasoning.  (That is also what my memory suggessts.) 

Thompson had in fact some quite cutting remarks about philosophical discussions of the trolley problem.  To switch to the version most recently discussed on this blog (see link above), he would say “In this case, push the fat man over,” completely fails as a example of moral advice.  To say that he was  not very clear about why it was such a failure would be an understatement, I would expect most people there to agree.  He remarked that it was failure because we are not told who is address.  People in New York City?  Americans?  or who?

I suspect that what he meant is that what makes some issue about a problem a moral issue was completely lacking.   And I’d conjecture that is because what puts something in the moral domain has to do with human excellences (virtues), human practices, and so on. 

If that’s right, then we might say that the dog (or cat) who wakes you up to get you out of a burning building may do something wonderful, but it is not moral.  Animals’ lives don’t contain the sitting needed  for genuinely moral behavior, even though they may do something in order to save a life.

Someone who knows his thought better, might be able to add  in here.  Or someone who stayed to the  bitter end might have gotten more.  If you can add anything, please do!

In the meantime, I will wonder how Michael Thompson came to look and act so like Elizabeth Anscombe, down to the contempt for questioners.  There were, I should insist, some elements of  his reactions which, however tempted she may have been, I never saw her  exhibit.  She was English, after all.

2 thoughts on “An actual trolley

  1. Here is the text, you can falsify it as you please, and please draw as much attention as possible to the author’s psychological peculiarities. Speculation on their origin is much welcomed.

    On almost any view, the truth about how to live, as anyone might seek it, is something that can to a certain extent be articulated in practical principles, communicable claims about what one should do, how one should live. This fact has a different significance in different systems of practical philosophy currents, but it seems plain that we advert to such principles in ordinary reflection, and more especially in backing up the particular directives given to children in bringing them up, once they are in a position to query the directives — for here we are in desperate need of formulable propositions. Now, the contest between Aristotelianism and Kantianism will show itself in a dispute over these principles. They will differ over the *scope* or *sphere of application* of the *most general* of them. If I affirm that one shouldn’t kill another, that murder is out or wrong — or I come down on what to do in some complex variant of the trolley problem — I am in some sense speaking generally, and voicing a principle, not just speaking to the case at hand.

    Now, what is the scope of the ‘one’ or ‘das Man’ that makes the subject term in my moralizing propositions? Who, for example, is Frances Kamm talking to in issuing a ruling on a subtle variant of Foot’s Trolley? Fellow members of modern liberal society? All human beings? All rational beings as such, Martians included? Writers on questions like this do not address this question. It is the same with writers on reasons in general like Raz or Scanlon or Broom. If I have no handle on the subject term, then all they give me are predicates.

    But an orthodox Kantian is lucid on the subject; she will say such a bit of preachment is addressed to all rational beings just as such; an Aristotelian is similarly self-aware: she will say the principle attaches to humans just as such, and expresses something about them, or the sort of thing they are.

  2. MT: Thanks so much for the text. I hope people will want to read through your book. To pick up on a theme in a discussion of Jason Stanley’s remark, your work seems clearly within what we count as our tradition and yet to be the last place for a trivializing of ethical decisions. I am also hopeful that your section on action explanation will help me – and others -continue to think our way out of the pernicious habit of reading off ontology from a kind of regimented logical form.

    Your remarkabout psychological pecularities led me to worry. I assume you have in mind this:

    I will wonder how Michael Thompson came to look and act so like Elizabeth Anscombe, down to the contempt for questioners. There were, I should insist, some elements of his reactions which, however tempted she may have been, I never saw her exhibit. She was English, after all.

    I just don’t see this is about psychological peculiarities, unless one adds in quite optional assumptions. Nonetheless, the remark now looks mean to me, and I regret making it. That said, your reaction to the first questioner left me feeling very upset, and it is a very integral part of my memory of that session. I couldn’t not at least allude to it.

    Finally, I do think that being said to be so like Anscombe is not a bad thing. Perhaps my phrasing suggests you are immitating her, but surely that is just too unlikely

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