Home Bookend - Where reading meets review The Trolley Problem Or Would You Throw The Fat Guy Off The Bridge – Thomas Cathcart

The Trolley Problem Or Would You Throw The Fat Guy Off The Bridge – Thomas Cathcart

by Venky

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Philippa Foot was an English philosopher influenced by the works of Aristotle. She was also the pioneer of a thought experiment that has not just tickled the attention of an eclectic bunch of professionals from psychologists to law enforcement agencies, to politicians to sociologists, but has also spawned a cottage industry going by the imaginative moniker of “Trolleyology”. So what exactly is Trolleyology or the trolley problem? In 1967, Philippa Foot, in an intuitive essay written in the context of the controversy surrounding abortion, set out this hypothetical scenario. The driver of a runaway tram finds himself caught in a unique conundrum. He sees five people ahead of him on the track on which the tram is hurtling away. All of them would be killed if the tram was to maintain its speedy course. However, there is an option for the driver to ‘steer’ the tram onto a sidetrack on which just one man is standing. What should the driver do? Should he divert the tram onto the sidetrack thereby minimizing the loss of lives, or should he continue maintaining the current course?

In the year 1985, American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson further complicated the trolley problem by introducing the ‘fat man’. During those days it was not considered offensive or rude to employ terms such as fat. In today’s world, a reference to this thought experiment has the words, hefty, burly or large instead of fat. Thomson posed the following dilemma to her readers. You are standing on a footbridge over the tram track. This time there is only a single track with five people standing on it. There is no choice for the driver to steer the runaway tram onto another sidetrack. The only way to stop the tram would be to obstruct its progress by placing a heavy object in front of it. Next to you on the footbridge is a very heavy man. If the man was to be gently pushed off the footbridge, he would land just in front of the tram and impede its progress. While obviously he will die, the death of five others would be avoided. Would you push the fat man off the bridge?

Thomas Cathcart in his humorous, charming and slim book, appropriately titled “The Trolley Problem” attempts to tackle the dilemma associated with both the trolley and the footbridge scenarios by taking recourse to a hypothetical newspaper account that details the charges against a fictional heroine who is being hauled up by the local prosecutor, under the allegation that she “had no right to play God” by diverting a streetcar toward a single victim, although in the process she saved five other lives. The trial is conducted in a “court of public opinion” where in addition to the lawyers representing the plaintiff and the defendant, there are also opinions and representations from a professor, a bishop, a psychologist, and also listeners tuning into a radio call-in broadcast.

Cathcart stress tests the actions of the imagined accused Daphne Jones against some of the most popular concepts in moral philosophy to ascertain whether her actions can stand vindicated. In the process, the author also illustrates the evolution of thought in the field of philosophy. Thus we have Jeremy Bentham’s “Utilitarianism” which advocates for actions to be deemed right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority. Hence the survival of five as weighted against the death of a solitary individual should be construed as an act that had in mind the benefit of the majority. However, this is a doctrine that falls afoul of commonsense and propriety when bestowed a carte blanche application. A majority in a country for instance cannot decide that it is ok for the minority to either starve to death or be in a state of perennial material and socio-economic deprivation.

Then there is the incredible hair splitting “Doctrine of Double Effect” (DDE) first promulgated by St Thomas Aquinas. DDE proposes that if four critical conditions are satisfied then an act that has pessimistic or unfortunate consequences can still be deemed to be exercised in rightful conduct. The four conditions are: the act considered independently of its harmful effects is not in itself wrong; the agent intends the good and does not intend the harm either as means or end; there is no way to achieve the good without causing the harmful effects; and the harmful effects are not disproportionately large relative to the good being sought. Thus while redirecting the tram to a sidetrack may be deemed acceptable because it amounts to just redirecting an existing threat, shoving a human being off a footbridge would not be acceptable because it represents introducing a threat. Moreover the act of pushing a person off the footbridge becomes a personal act as against a relatively impersonal one of driving a tram.

In addition to Bentham’s logic, there are also allusions to concepts propounded by Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, and a few other seminal philosophers. However Cathcart does not resort to either verbiage or jargon in providing a rudimentary understanding of the basic essence underlying these tenets. This is what makes the book not just interesting, but refreshingly compelling as well.

So finally for the verdict. Oh before that:

A trolley is heading toward five thin men and upon colliding against them will come to a stop but not before killing all of them. You as a bystander, however, have an option to turn the trolley onto a loop. One fat man is tied onto the loop. His weight alone will stop the trolley, preventing it from continuing around the loop and killing the five. Should you turn the trolley down the loop?

All the very best! As for the decision in the Daphne Jones case – did you actually think I would set out the verdict in this review?

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