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.

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.

The fault in our stars

from a friend

On a whim & and the advice of an author I follow I recently read this book and it has a nice Philippa Foot trolley problem reference! I thought that was fun because not only is it a v.high quality young adult novel, it’s enormously popular (over a million copies in print).

We might not like the trolley problem, but it might still be interesting to see what non-phils do with it.

And the number one 20th Century moral philosopher is…

Apparently Brian Leiter’s description of Philippa Foot as a towering figure has drawn some objections.  And, how could it not?  We’re a disagreeing lot, and furthermore, one suspects that the idea of a woman philosopher towering over one evokes some pretty uncomfortable images and associations.  From mommy to Hilary Clinton to  dominatrix.  

So Leiter’s put up a poll.  It is interesting in its own right, because it includes some continental figures, including Derrida.   It will be interesting to see if she (and Elizabeth Anscombe, who is on the list) are given the ranking they deserve.  Given how the philosophy community works, I’m not placing any bets. 

 (I do agree that it would be better if we did not go in for this sort of ranking, but it is endemic to academic and here is not where I want to stop.)

Now for the scope of Foot’s moral philosophy, let me quote Larry Solum and  Gavin Lawrence, both from Solum’s blog:


Philippa Foot, for many years associated with Somerville College, Oxford and also with the University of California Los Angeles as the Griffin Professor of Philosophy, passed away yesterday, October 3, 2010. Foot was a giant of moral philosophy. Her books include Natural Goodness, Virtues and Vices: And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, and Moral Dilemmas: and other topics in moral philosophy. She will be remembered for many things, including the famous Trolley Problem. Her essay “Virtues and Vices” (in the anthology of the same name) was among the most important steps in the development of contemporary virtue ethics–a movement that Foot explicitly disavowed. The question, “Why be moral?,” occupied Foot for most of her long career, and her work on this topic is widely acknowledged as of fundamental importance.  [There is a lot more in his remarks.]


“Philippa Foot is among the handful of the twentieth century’s very best moral philosophers. Her achievement consists not so much of truths presented as of her distinctive voice in philosophy. In this way, she is like Moore or Rawls, or most pertinently Wittgenstein. To read her is immediately to struggle with the real stuff of the subject, to the highest standards; the subject is not the same for one again.Her work divides into several, diversely overlapping, strands: the major themes of ethics, such as its objectivity and its rationality; middle range issues, such as freedom of the will, virtues and vices, the critique of utilitarianism, and moral dilemmas; more specific ethical distinctions and problems, such as the doctrine of double effect

X-Phil in the NY Times again

but this time in the review of Rebecca Goldstein’s latest novel, Thirty-six Arguments for the Existence of God.  Janet Maslin, the reviewer closes with this observation:

When Cass [an academic and central character] witnesses a PowerPoint presentation featuring “brain scans of sophomores, neuroimaged in the throes of moral deliberation over whether they should, in theory, toss a hapless fat man onto the tracks in order to use his bulk to save five other men from an oncoming trolley,” this book occupies its ideal vantage point: close to the absurdity of current academic thinking yet just far enough away to laugh.

Ouch!  But ha ha, also.

I don’t know if any of our friends at Experimental Philosophy will notice.  Maslin’s comments remind me that people outside the academia often make the mistake of thinking of some piece of research as though it were an end in itself, as opposed to something more like one step in a much larger project.

At the same time, the idea that the trolley problem is supposed to be a paradigm case of a moral problem seems something feminists might well feel concern over.

What do you think?

A change in policy

Our “be nice” rule is being expanded in order to support more effectively our goal of promoting discussion of feminist issues in a productive manner. The topics we discuss in feminist philosophy are ones that are not just theoretical. We’re discussing things that matter to people’s lives, and we need to bear in mind that reading these discussions can affect people’s lives. While very few readers of philosophical blogs will have been tied to the trolley tracks, quite a lot of them will have been on the receiving end of the various forms of oppression that are frequent topics here. It is a vital goal of ours to create a safe and supportive environment for discussion of these issues and experiences. One way that an unwelcome atmosphere can be created is by repeated expression of views which, intentionally or otherwise, lend support to (for example) racist or sexist positions. In the past we have allowed this if the individual comments do not fall afoul of our “be nice” rule. But our readership has made it clear to us that this is insufficient, and that as a result we have allowed our blog to become at times an unwelcoming environment for those who are on the receiving end of various sorts of oppression. If your comments are of this sort, you will be politely asked to back off a bit. If that doesn’t work, you may be placed in moderation or blocked.

Commenters who fall foul of this new rule may well be entirely unaware of the way in which their comments can serve to create a problematic environment. That is, after all, the way that privilege often works. We hope, then, that the occasional “back off a bit please”, or “please don’t go down this road”, linked to this post, will be received as a helpful intervention. Our assumption has been, and continues to be, that we all want to conduct an open and full discussion in a manner that facilitates, rather than hinders, the participation of those who are victims of oppression. This is, however, a tricky matter. We hope that you’ll bear with us as we work our way toward improving the blog’s atmosphere.

Teacher reprimanded for child-murdering maths quiz

A primary school teacher in Japan has been reprimanded for setting his pupils a maths puzzle, which involved murdering children. The pupils were allegedly asked how long it would take to kill eighteen children, if three were murdered per day. This reminded me of our recent discussion about killing fat people with trolleys, where people were lampooned in comments for suggesting there might be something awry with asking folk to consider such things as part of a philosophy puzzle. Make of that what you will. You can read more about the teacher and his maths quiz here.

In other news, I am thinking of inventing a series of FP prizes that I will be awarding at random to our posts. This one wins the prize for ‘title most like a tabloid headline’.

Why does anyone diss analytic philosophy?

Or, rather, why do our fellow humanities profs fail to respect us any more?  Jason Stanley (Rutgers) attempts to answer this question in a way that shows what is and always has been great about philosophy as we (i.e., “analytic philosophers” broadly understood) do it.  First, a worry about the “we.”  I think a number of readers and participants in this blog are not particularly happy about being identified in that way.  Indeed, I probably fit the label and, for different reasons, I’m not happy about that.  But I’d like to write from the inside on this piece, rather than present philosophy in academia today as some distant problem.  Most of us, analytic or not, are quite affected by the conception of philosophy that does dominate in Anglo-American-Australasian universities today, so in a sense we all have a vested interest in these discussions as, in some way, insiders.

All the quotes below are from Stanley, except for  this one:

 Janet Maslin, the reviewer closes with this observation:

When Cass [an academic and central character] witnesses a PowerPoint presentation featuring “brain scans of sophomores, neuroimaged in the throes of moral deliberation over whether they should, in theory, toss a hapless fat man onto the tracks in order to use his bulk to save five other men from an oncoming trolley,” this book occupies its ideal vantage point: close to the absurdity of current academic thinking yet just far enough away to laugh.

A case can be made that some of the distrust of  philosophy today is that it is seen as having radically misunderstood what is important in human life and thought.  So one might at the end want to know if JS realizes that.

1.  First, the insults; here’s one of many:

In the recently announced results of the new American Council of Learned Societies “New Faculty Fellows” program, 53 recent Ph.D.s in the humanities were awarded post-doctoral fellowships. None of the initial list of winners held a Ph.D. in philosophy. This is only the most recent insult to the oldest of disciplines.

2.  What are the other, respectible humanities doing:

Humans organize themselves into societies, cultures, nations, religions, genders, and races, and employ art and literature to represent their character. According to one view, the humanities should explain the nature of these formations – how the cultural artifacts the groups produce represent their respective identities. … Confrontation with the other has become a necessity of modernity, and humanists have settled into playing a role as our arbiter with the unfamiliar.

Philosophy stands apart from this emerging consensus about the purpose of the humanities. Its questions – which concern the nature and scope of concepts like knowledge, representation, free will, rational agency, goodness, justice, laws, evidence and truth – seem antiquated and baroque. Its central debates seem disconnected from the issues of identity …  Whereas humanists have transformed into actors, using their teaching and research as political tools, philosophers have withdrawn ever more to positions as removed spectators, and not of life, but of some abstracted and disconnected realm of Grand Concepts.

3.  What’s wrong with the estrangement:

That philosophy has become estranged from the humanities is ironic. Philosophy has shaped the modernity in which its role has been supplanted by the anthropology of the other …   There is perhaps a place for the history of Philosophy – investigation into how abstract reflection on grand concepts led to the modern world – but no more use for the abstract theorizing of a Descartes, Kant, or Spinoza.

4.  And a positive characterization of philosophy:

Philosophical problems also have a childlike grandiosity. When a philosopher announces that she is working on the nature of truth, she sounds like a teenager discovering the world of ideas for the first time. The notion that someone could come up with a new way to show that (say) we know that we are not brains in vats must seem infantile, even more so when the methods seem so dry and dilettantish. As the philosopher David Hill has described the discipline, it is “the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.”

The view that there is no proper place anymore in the academy for the theorizing of figures such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant is well-reflected in the relative success philosophers achieve in competition with fellow humanists for various fellowships. ..  Nevertheless, while contemporary philosophy shares positivist enlightenment values, the positivist anti-metaphysical program has fallen into disfavor. Many leading contemporary philosophers have achieved their status precisely because of defenses of metaphysical views. ….In short, philosophy has not changed. David Lewis writes very differently than Nietzsche. But the unusual figure was Nietzsche, and not Lewis. The great philosophical works have always been difficult technical tomes, pursuing arcane arguments in the service of grand metaphysical and epistemological conclusions. None are easy reading for laypersons, and few base their arguments on anthropology or sociology. The conclusions they draw, and the methods they employ, are the same that one finds in the work of philosophers today. There are many philosophers working today who embrace and argue for Hume’s skeptical conclusions, just as there are many philosophers today arguing for Descartes’ view about the relation between the body and the soul in the Meditations. …  But given the role that the Humanities have adopted in modern civilization, what role does philosophy have to play? … current philosophers … have returned to the traditional philosophical questions one finds in classical philosophy – the nature of persons and rational agency, the status of free will, the nature and reality of material objects. …

5.  The good that philosophy brings to educations:

Most humanists challenge preconceptions by confronting students with alternative cultural identities. The philosopher instead focuses on the beliefs that constitute a religious or cultural identity. … Instead of teaching the middle-class American person about the actual poverty and oppression in her society, the philosopher forces her to reflect on abstract problem cases in which that person’s intuitions lead her to condemn the behavior of someone who is in fact behaving in all relevant respects similar to her. These are different methods of confronting complacency, but they are no less effective …  if the purpose of the humanities is to challenge preconceptions and basic beliefs, in the service of forming a better and more tolerant citizen of a diverse and globalized world, the methods of the philosopher and the methods of the historian are equally necessary.

So philosophy is still engaged in abstract reflection on the grand concepts, just as it’s core always has been.  And that enables us to really help students by revealing to them their basic ideas in the service of making them more tolerant.

On to comments on JS above.  First things first:  can we put some infelicities aside?  For example, most Humean scholars in the Hume Society resist the idea that Hume reached sceptical conclusions; he was constructing a naturalistic conception of the human mind, and, I would add, its conclusions about the limitedness of human reason are abundantly supported by recent research.  But these are not sceptical conclusions; rather, we realize our knowledge is largely owing to instinct.  Somewhat simillarly, many philosophers  today may be dualists, but it’s surprising to be told they are Cartesian substance dualism.  I have no idea where these folk are, but there aren’t many in the forums I know about.

Secondly, many historians of philosophy get very nervous about the idea that there are these grand concepts that have been contemplated for millennia.  I mean, we might not be all that sensitive to different cultures but we really shouldn’t assume that all the philosophers that English speakers read shared our culture and concepts.

Thirdly, as someone who thinks that there  is something to be said for a conception of the mind’s relations to nature that we largely  lost with Fodor’s language of thought, and Chisholm’s misinterpretation of Brentano’s quasi-thomistic conception of intentionality, I can report that there’s a great hostility to important thought that prevailed for most of those millennia. 

But let me  leave it to you, dear readers, to advance pros and cons to this picture.  Do you think, for example, our contribution to education is well captured?

Let me also remind you of our tradition of respectful disagreement.  Furthermore, since Stanley’s was one of the few straight analytic sessions to move out of the Westin for the Pacific APA, let us note that in some ways he is on the side of the good (supposing, of course, there is one.  With sides.) 

(And thanks to Chris Green, York University, for the email about JS’s article.)