June 18, 2018

THE NOTION THAT WE REASON AT ALL IN AN EMERGENCY IS QUAINT:

Does the Trolley Problem Have a Problem?: What if your answer to an absurd hypothetical question had no bearing on how behaved in real life? (DANIEL ENGBER, JUNE 18, 2018, Slate)

For all this method's enduring popularity, few have bothered to examine how it might relate to real-life moral judgments. Would your answers to a set of trolley hypotheticals correspond with what you'd do if, say, a deadly train were really coming down the tracks, and you really did have the means to change its course? In November 2016, though, Dries Bostyn, a graduate student in social psychology at the University of Ghent, ran what may have been the first-ever real-life version of a trolley-problem study in the lab. In place of railroad tracks and human victims, he used an electroschock machine and a colony of mice--and the question was no longer hypothetical: Would students press a button to zap a living, breathing mouse, so as to spare five other living, breathing mice from feeling pain?

"I think almost everyone within this field has considered running this experiment in real life, but for some reason no one ever got around to it," Bostyn says. He published his own results last month: People's thoughts about imaginary trolleys and other sacrificial hypotheticals did not predict their actions with the mice, he found. [...]

Bostyn's mice aside, there are other reasons to wary of the trolley hypotheticals. For one thing, a recent international project to reproduce 40 major studies in the field of experimental philosophy included stabs at two of Greene's highly cited trolley-problem studies. Both failed to replicate. Then there's the fact that trolley-type dilemmas are often interpreted as though they were a valid measure of a person's or a population's tendency toward utilitarian decision-making. (That's how researchers concluded that men are more utilitarian than women and that millennials are more utilitarian than Gen-Xers.) But recent research finds these hypotheticals only measure one component of utilitarian moral judgment; namely, the willingness to inflict sacrificial harm. That leaves out another basic element of this ethical framework: one's commitment to the greater good, and positive investment in the well-being of strangers. That explains the awkward fact that trolley studies tend to label psychopaths as utilitarians despite their moral shortcomings. (Psychopaths, it turns out, tend to be quite willing to endorse pushing strangers off of footbridges.)

Posted by at June 18, 2018 4:13 AM

  

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