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Thread: Ethics and Political Decisions: The Trolley Problem.

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    Politics.ie Member statsman's Avatar
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    Default Ethics and Political Decisions: The Trolley Problem.

    Many of you are undoubtedly already familiar with the Trolley Problem, a philosophical game for the exploration of ethical issues and attitudes.

    In its simple form the problem goes like this. An out of control empty railway trolley is approaching a group of five people working on the track who are unaware of its approach. Between the trolley and the group is a set of points that could divert the trolley down another line.

    On that line, a single individual is working.

    You are standing beside the lever that controls the points. The question is, do you do nothing and let the five die, or throw the switch and kill the one? And why do you take that course of action.

    Does your answer change if you know the people involved? Maybe the individual is the mother/father of your children, or your deadly enemy?

    You may wonder what this has to do with political philosophy. Well, isnít this kind of choice at the root of much policy and decision making? Do we fund a hospital or a school? Should we prioritise looking after the young or the elderly? These are fundamentally ethical questions, and society would, in my view, be better served if voters and politicians alike were more explicit in their reasoning around them. For those who are interested, this article in Prospect teases out the political dimensions of the trolley problem at greater length.

    My reason for posting this OP is to give us an opportunity to debate our ethical reasoning in a calm and rational manner. The question is what would you do if yours was the hand on the lever, and, more importantly, why would you chose that particular alternative?
    Put a thief among honest men and they will eventually relieve him of his watch. Flann O'Brien

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    Politics.ie Member Astral Peaks's Avatar
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    This is a variant on the old Hitler problem, yes?

    If you could have killed him as a child, would you?
    "Don't need a whore, I don't need no booze, don't need a virgin priest."

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    Dylan2010
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    its a very open scenario, my version would be 5 drunks messing on the line as against 1 person who knows he is walking on a line where no train is expected. In that case you let the train proceed as it was going.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Astral Peaks View Post
    This is a variant on the old Hitler problem, yes?

    If you could have killed him as a child, would you?

    It's a bit more nuanced than that. With the trolley problem, the outcome of both action or inaction does not make the world any better; whichever path you chose, there's nothing 'heroic' involved.
    Last edited by statsman; 6th March 2012 at 01:34 PM.
    Put a thief among honest men and they will eventually relieve him of his watch. Flann O'Brien

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dylan2010 View Post
    its a very open scenario, my version would be 5 drunks messing on the line as against 1 person who knows he is walking on a line where no train is expected. In that case you let the train proceed as it was going.

    Imagine five sober people and one sober person, none of whom are expecting a train. And are people who happen to be drunk lesser beings?
    Put a thief among honest men and they will eventually relieve him of his watch. Flann O'Brien

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    Politics.ie Member LamportsEdge's Avatar
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    I'm not sure the Trolley problem relates so readily to the political environment. The first is a human ethical issue and the political environment link assumes that all politicians have a desire to provide as much services as possible for the common good of the society in which they operate.

    Perhaps cynical of me but the latter logic is distorted by what seems to me the fact that politics is a career choice and the hidden requirements of the job are always based around expectations management.

    The new tyro TD will base his or her first campaign on an indignancy that constituents aren't being well represented and are missing out on services. Off he/she goes to Dail Eireann promising to represent the constituency. Day one he/she is in with the party whips being reeducated as to who she actually represents- the party. That is the first area where services for the constituency are suborned to party requirements. Anything he/she gets for the constituency will depend how much her vote is needed by the party leadership faction or the coming faction where there is a party heave.

    Suggesting that politicians sit down and scratch their heads over a balance sheet and hope to be able to fund a hospital somewhere is a very theoretical view of what happens between politicians and resources.

    From an Irish political viewpoint the Trolley ethical problem is also mixed up -- suppose the one lad on the track you could divert the trolley onto is your sisters Ma's brother-in-law who owes you fifty euros from last Saturday's poker game?

    And the line with five blissfully unaware lads working on it are a team from outside the parish that no-one knows?

    In my case there is an easy choice- bye bye the fifty euro and five lives saved. Saving five lives and their attendant connections from the consequences of their deaths outranks the single lad working on the other line.

    It is what an army officer would do I suspect, or a doctor...
    Whenever understanding exists, accepting or rejecting is unnecessary. (Fundamentals of a Gnostic Education).

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    Boggle
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    Quote Originally Posted by statsman View Post
    Many of you are undoubtedly already familiar with the Trolley Problem, a philosophical game for the exploration of ethical issues and attitudes.

    In its simple form the problem goes like this. An out of control empty railway trolley is approaching a group of five people working on the track who are unaware of its approach. Between the trolley and the group is a set of points that could divert the trolley down another line.

    On that line, a single individual is working.

    You are standing beside the lever that controls the points. The question is, do you do nothing and let the five die, or throw the switch and kill the one? And why do you take that course of action.

    Does your answer change if you know the people involved? Maybe the individual is the mother/father of your children, or your deadly enemy?
    I'd go for the minimal no casualty's unless I know the person in question.

    Quote Originally Posted by Astral Peaks View Post
    This is a variant on the old Hitler problem, yes?

    If you could have killed him as a child, would you?
    No... couldn't.

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    Politics.ie Member statsman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LamportsEdge View Post
    I'm not sure the Trolley problem relates so readily to the political environment. The first is a human ethical issue and the political environment link assumes that all politicians have a desire to provide as much services as possible for the common good of the society in which they operate.

    Perhaps cynical of me but the latter logic is distorted by what seems to me the fact that politics is a career choice and the hidden requirements of the job are always based around expectations management.

    The new tyro TD will base his or her first campaign on an indignancy that constituents aren't being well represented and are missing out on services. Off he/she goes to Dail Eireann promising to represent the constituency. Day one he/she is in with the party whips being reeducated as to who she actually represents- the party. That is the first area where services for the constituency are suborned to party requirements. Anything he/she gets for the constituency will depend how much her vote is needed by the party leadership faction or the coming faction where there is a party heave.

    Suggesting that politicians sit down and scratch their heads over a balance sheet and hope to be able to fund a hospital somewhere is a very theoretical view of what happens between politicians and resources.

    From an Irish political viewpoint the Trolley ethical problem is also mixed up -- suppose the one lad on the track you could divert the trolley onto is your sisters Ma's brother-in-law who owes you fifty euros from last Saturday's poker game?

    And the line with five blissfully unaware lads working on it are a team from outside the parish that no-one knows?

    I think this post demonstrates exactly why the Trolley Problem is deeply applicable to politics, including Irish politics, because it helps foreground the motivations that muddy what should be decisions that are made for the common good.
    Put a thief among honest men and they will eventually relieve him of his watch. Flann O'Brien

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    Politics.ie Member statsman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Boggle View Post
    I'd go for the minimal no casualty's unless I know the person in question.


    No... couldn't.
    Why? [To both answers]
    Put a thief among honest men and they will eventually relieve him of his watch. Flann O'Brien

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    Politics.ie Member LamportsEdge's Avatar
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    Good point. The comparison should be possible but isn't because of the gap between theory and reality in politics.
    Whenever understanding exists, accepting or rejecting is unnecessary. (Fundamentals of a Gnostic Education).

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