Trolley Problems (And Why I Hate Talking About Them)

 

Here is the best intro ever to the original Trolley Problem. Below is why I hate Trolley problems (Rumble version here), and after that is a text version.  (YouTube embedding isn’t working, but links are still clickable!)

“On Trolley Problems and Why I Hate Talking About Them”

A Trolley Problem involves some scenario, some thought experiment, where we have to decide whether to allow a runaway trolley, or train car, to kill several people, or to save them by taking some action that kills someone else.

In the standard version, we have to choose between letting several people die or saving them by switching the tracks so the runaway trolley kills just one person instead. (See the best intro above!) More advanced Trolley Problems get more complicated, more dramatic, or more ridiculous–like the one where your only way to save a few lives is to shove a fat guy off of a bridge and onto the tracks.

So now, after this intro, we have three things to talk about.  First, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill.  Second, Aristotle.  Third, my own reflections.

Now, what do Kant and Mill say about this stuff?

Kant gemaelde 3.jpgIt seems that some people think that Kant thinks we should not take any action that leads to killing anyone (even if it means more people die).

And it seems that some people think that Mill thinks we should take any action that leads to fewer people dying (even if it means our actions kill some people).

I think this is a near-total failure to understand Kant and Mill.

First, Kant doesn’t say “No killing.”  What he says is: Always follow what he calls the “Categorical Imperative,” for example Version 2 of the CI: Always treat human beings as ends in themselves, never as merely means to an end.  And he says Version 1 of the CI: Always act according to principles that can be universalized.  And always follow any principle that meets the test of CI Version 1.

Second, Mill tells us that general rules are very useful and important!  Rules like “Tell the truth” and “Don’t kill innocent people” lead to much better results, and should almost never be broken.  The consequences of undermining a good rule have to weighed against the supposed good results of breaking the rule.  Usually, the rules should be followed.

However, I think Mill actually says you should switch the tracks in the simple version!

And . . . I think Kant agrees!

In more complex versions, if you think Mill would recommend killing, find out what is the principle behind his action; make sure the principle is articulated in enough detail to respond to the details of this particular situation and not be arbitrarily applied to significantly different situations.

John Stuart Mill - WikipediaI bet that principle will be universalizable! If it is, then Kant’s method of knowing right from wrong agrees with Mill!

And, if you think Kant doesn’t recommend killing, try learning how Kant actually thinks about ethics before you assume he’s in some sort of irresolvable conflict with Mill.  In particular, find out whether Kant thinks the ideal of the “Kingdom of Ends,” a society where everyone recognizes that everyone has intrinsic value worthy of respect, is something we are getting closer to by following the Categorical Imperative.  And find out whether getting closer to the Kingdom of Ends isn’t a net increase of happiness on earth.  If it is, then Mill’s method of knowing right from wrong agrees with Kant on this point.

And what does Aristotle say about this stuff?

I guess I don’t know for sure, but here is what seems to me a pretty good Aristotelian position:

This whole thing is just silly. We’d do better to just shut up about it.  The study of moral dilemmas like this is less than 1% of the study of ethics. The solution of moral dilemmas like this is less than 1% of ethical living.

This is a question for the experts–meaning people who have become virtuous.

But you’re not virtuous yet, so you’re not ready. Your job now is to become virtuous.  Do that instead of thinking about this stuff.

But if you really want to think about tricky moral dilemmas, first master the concept of the proper function of the human being and learn the basics of human proper function.

Trolley Problems are like this:

Suppose you are stranded, having survived a plane crash, on a desert island with only one source of fresh water, and it’s full of snails.  You can’t find any means of boiling the water.  Each day is a genuine medical dilemma: Should you drink the snail water today and risk bilharzia, or wait one more day hoping to be rescued while getting closer to severe dehydration?

Aristotle Altemps Inv8575.jpgNo, actually, Trolley Problems are really like this:

Imagine if you’re in medical school, and on the first day of class you are introduced to the medical dilemma of the desert island snail water. You are made to debate it with your classmates.  You are informed that it is an open-ended question to which the experts have failed to give us any convincing answer.  You are asked to opine on the merits of avoiding dehydration versus the merits of avoiding infectious diseases.

Now imagine that in the rest of medical school you are made to discuss questions like this instead of learning how the human body works and instead of learning all about things like disease and dehydration.

Now imagine they tell you that this sort of uninformed debate of tricky questions, prior to learning the basics of medicine, is what medical education is all about.

And what do I say about this?

I agree with Kant, Mill, and Aristotle.

When we study ethics we spend way too much time talking about tricky decisions and difficult situations.  And way too much time with Kobayashi Maru situations, to use the Star Trek terminology—no-win scenarios.  Those situations where there’s no right answer, or at least no good answer.

We talk about this stuff as if this is what it means to study ethics. But this is a tiny sliver of the study of ethics, and in any case the whole point of studying ethics is to go out and live ethically!

Last semester, I saved some text I used to respond to something a student said in an online reflection assignment. As I recall, the student had said something about Trolley Problems where all the answers are wrong, and about how we can’t help regretting the outcome no matter what we choose.

Here’s what I said (text slightly modified):

Are they all wrong? Would we have regrets if there was nothing we could do?

I could probably save more lives by donating O-negative blood under false pretenses, e.g. by taking blood pressure medication that they don’t allow so they measure my blood pressure low enough. But that would take cheating or lying, and it corrupts the system, and destroys trust, and it probably harms my character, and has a strong chance of hurting more people in the long run.

So I don’t worry about it. If sometimes I can’t donate blood as often as I’d prefer to, there’s nothing I can do, and I don’t have to worry about a life I didn’t save only because I couldn’t.

Meanwhile, I have SO MUCH moral advice that has been given to me in the philosophers.  Advice about the Golden Rule, loving my wife and kids, doing a good job at work, almsgiving, practicing habits that make me virtuous, loving God and neighbor, etc. I already have enough moral advice from Confucius, Kant, Mill, Aristotle, Augustine. Enough to fill a lifetime. I know these things are my responsibility, even if I can’t save every life in every single situation.

Do you want to study ethics?  Study that stuff.

Confucius Tang Dynasty.jpgAnd then go and live it.  And, once you’re well on your way to figuring out advice from a few of the great ones—like Kant, Mill, or Aristotle—on how to know right from wrong in difficult situations, then maybe apply that to Trolley Problems.

But I don’t advise you to worry about Trolley Problems until you’re well on your way to learning the basics of ethics—the not-so-complicated, real-life lessons from the great philosophers.

Even the basics, like the negative form of the Golden Rule—Do not do to others what you want them to not do to you—can take a lifetime to put into practice, as Confucius tells his disciple Zigong.

So be good.  That will be your best preparation for a real-life moral dilemma anyway.  You want to face your next moral dilemma as a person with good character.

You need to become that person.  Start now.

And, anyway, if more of us had good character, we’d have a whole lot fewer real-life moral dilemmas.

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  1. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose.  Seriously.

    • #1
  2. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems.  Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    • #2
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    In psychology ethics, I have never once talked about the stupid trolly problem.

    Ethical decision making is a process. It cannot be one set of rules (Per Godel). 

    Consult, consult,consult.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems. Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    Because a 7’1″ black man stomping around 19th century Brannau am Inn would certainly have impressed little Adolf.

    • #4
  5. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Percival (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems. Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    Because a 7’1″ black man stomping around 19th century Brannau am Inn would certainly have impressed little Adolf.

    Shap vs. Shaq.  Either way.

    • #5
  6. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems. Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    Except, Science Fiction teaches us that trying to STOP Hitler is what CAUSES Hitler.

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems. Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    Because a 7’1″ black man stomping around 19th century Brannau am Inn would certainly have impressed little Adolf.

    Shap vs. Shaq. Either way.

    Shap? Who dat?

    • #7
  8. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Percival (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems. Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    Because a 7’1″ black man stomping around 19th century Brannau am Inn would certainly have impressed little Adolf.

    Shap vs. Shaq. Either way.

    Shap? Who dat?

    Ben Shapiro.

    • #8
  9. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems. Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    Except, Science Fiction teaches us that trying to STOP Hitler is what CAUSES Hitler.

    So try to stop him by making him a well-raised decent human being instead of trying to stop him by killing him.

    Sci-fi even teaches that that works.  It’s been done twice, once in Travelers and once in Twelve Monkeys (tv show, not Bruce Willis movie).

    • #9
  10. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Saint Augustine: So be good.  That will be your best preparation for a real-life moral dilemma anyway.  You want to face your next moral dilemma as a person with good character.

    I remember doing similar exercises, even leading them, and in retrospect, they are a waste of time. Life deals out all kinds of challenges, easy ones and hard ones, joyful ones and unpleasant ones. But whatever shows up, we must make our choices about how to respond within an ethical framework. The focus on being good has always guided me well, and I hope to follow it for the rest of my life.  Thanks,  St A

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems. Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    Because a 7’1″ black man stomping around 19th century Brannau am Inn would certainly have impressed little Adolf.

    Shap vs. Shaq. Either way.

    Shap? Who dat?

    Ben Shapiro.

    Ah.

    He’d better take Shaq with him.

    • #11
  12. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems. Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    Except, Science Fiction teaches us that trying to STOP Hitler is what CAUSES Hitler.

    So try to stop him by making him a well-raised decent human being instead of trying to stop him by killing him.

    Sci-fi even teaches that that works. It’s been done twice, once in Travelers and once in Twelve Monkeys (tv show, not Bruce Willis movie).

    But depending on what you believe about time travel, all of those schemes have failed, otherwise Hitler would not have been Hitler.

    • #12
  13. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems. Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    Except, Science Fiction teaches us that trying to STOP Hitler is what CAUSES Hitler.

    So try to stop him by making him a well-raised decent human being instead of trying to stop him by killing him.

    Sci-fi even teaches that that works. It’s been done twice, once in Travelers and once in Twelve Monkeys (tv show, not Bruce Willis movie).

    But depending on what you believe about time travel, all of those schemes have failed, otherwise Hitler would not have been Hitler.

    In Travelers and Twelve Monkeys you really can change the future.

    • #13
  14. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I always wonder how the trolley got loose. Seriously.

    Yeah, and what are all those people doing on the tracks?

    A better approach to ethics is to prevent these stupid problems. Like when Shap said he wouldn’t kill baby Hitler if he had a time machine. He’d help him not become the Hitler we know.

    Except, Science Fiction teaches us that trying to STOP Hitler is what CAUSES Hitler.

    So try to stop him by making him a well-raised decent human being instead of trying to stop him by killing him.

    Sci-fi even teaches that that works. It’s been done twice, once in Travelers and once in Twelve Monkeys (tv show, not Bruce Willis movie).

    But depending on what you believe about time travel, all of those schemes have failed, otherwise Hitler would not have been Hitler.

    In Travelers and Twelve Monkeys you really can change the future.

    The time travelers themselves might know that they changed the future, but the non-time-travelers only experience what happened.  We all still experienced/remember/whatever Hitler happening, therefore none of the time-travel schemes have succeeded.

    Unless you want to get into the multiverse stuff, but what does that matter?  Hitler happened for US, and even if other universes don’t experience that, so what?

    • #14
  15. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    kedavis (View Comment):
    We all still experienced/remember/whatever Hitler happening, therefore none of the time-travel schemes have succeeded.

    So you’re actually talking about the real world?

    In the real world, we don’t even have time travel.

    • #15
  16. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):
    We all still experienced/remember/whatever Hitler happening, therefore none of the time-travel schemes have succeeded.

    So you’re actually talking about the real world?

    In the real world, we don’t even have time travel.

    “What do we want?”

    “Time travel!”

    “When do we want it?”

    “It’s irrelevant!”

    • #16
  17. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):
    We all still experienced/remember/whatever Hitler happening, therefore none of the time-travel schemes have succeeded.

    So you’re actually talking about the real world?

    In the real world, we don’t even have time travel.

    “What do we want?”

    “Time travel!”

    “When do we want it?”

    “It’s irrelevant!”

    I keep not working on my time machine plans because my future self should be able to just show up and give me the blueprints.  But he keeps not showing up.  Dang lazy bum must have had the same idea I did.

    • #17
  18. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):
    We all still experienced/remember/whatever Hitler happening, therefore none of the time-travel schemes have succeeded.

    So you’re actually talking about the real world?

    In the real world, we don’t even have time travel.

    “What do we want?”

    “Time travel!”

    “When do we want it?”

    “It’s irrelevant!”

    I keep not working on my time machine plans because my future self should be able to just show up and give me the blueprints. But he keeps not showing up. Dang lazy bum must have had the same idea I did.

    Or something.

     

    • #18
  19. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    So if I pull the lever on the trolley, but over the next thousand miles of track people diligently replace the train piece by piece, have I still killed someone?

    • #19
  20. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    • #20
  21. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator
    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker
    @AmySchley

    I agree that these kinds of ethical questions aren’t nearly as relevant to ethical living as more basic philosophical concepts. But I think the reason they get their outsized focus is because they’re interesting. 

    I wrote my own piece on how the trolley problem shows up in Star Trek:

    https://ricochet.com/541744/of-trek-and-trolleys/

    Why are there so many episodes with this structure? Because it’s interesting. When done well, it pits sympathetic characters against each other with arguments that are, at least prima facie, reasonable.

    Likewise, I can see why it gets outsized play in required general education college courses. How do you get bored 19 year olds who are only there to punch their tickets to actually do more than read and regurgitate? Seems like a number of professors settle on “Give them a question with no obvious right answer.”

    • #21
  22. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I read a sci-fi story years ago, I wish I could find it again but I’ve been unable to track it down.

    The situation was a rocketship returning from the Moon, as I recall.  It has lost maneuvering power.

    If it hits Earth’s atmosphere without proper deceleration, the shock wave will kill hundreds or possibly thousands (I don’t recall exactly) on the surface, as well as destroy multiple buildings and what-not.

    The only way to prevent that is to destroy the ship beforehand, so that only small pieces enter the atmosphere.

    Of course the people on the ship are dead either way.  But do you kill them intentionally, or let them die in the atmospheric collision along with the others who will die as a result?

    The protagonist – some kind of space-flight commander in charge of space travel to and from Earth, I think – is told that he must prevent the shockwave, but he must not destroy the ship.

    Ultimately he orders the ship destroyed, and is of course lambasted – perhaps court-martialed, imprisoned, etc, although I think the story ends before that – for making a decision that none of the others wanted to take responsibility for.

     

    • #22
  23. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    I agree that these kinds of ethical questions aren’t nearly as relevant to ethical living as more basic philosophical concepts. But I think the reason they get their outsized focus is because they’re interesting.

    I wrote my own piece on how the trolley problem shows up in Star Trek:

    https://ricochet.com/541744/of-trek-and-trolleys/

    Why are there so many episodes with this structure? Because it’s interesting. When done well, it pits sympathetic characters against each other with arguments that are, at least prima facie, reasonable.

    Likewise, I can see why it gets outsized play in required general education college courses. How do you get bored 19 year olds who are only there to punch their tickets to actually do more than read and regurgitate? Seems like a number of professors settle on “Give them a question with no obvious right answer.”

    Pretty good reasons to support Trolley Problems!

    But what happens in Star Trek–if it’s done well–or some other good story is much more than just a Trolley Problem.  It’s a story.  It’s a story about people.  People with character–sometimes even good character.

    Sisko is probably one of the five most virtuous guys in all of Star Trek.  If he has to make some decision whether to do some cloak-and-dagger stuff with the Romulans, we might be getting a glimpse at the actual Aristotle answer to a Trolley Problem: Do what the virtuous guy did.

    • #23
  24. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    I agree that these kinds of ethical questions aren’t nearly as relevant to ethical living as more basic philosophical concepts. But I think the reason they get their outsized focus is because they’re interesting.

    I wrote my own piece on how the trolley problem shows up in Star Trek:

    https://ricochet.com/541744/of-trek-and-trolleys/

    Why are there so many episodes with this structure? Because it’s interesting. When done well, it pits sympathetic characters against each other with arguments that are, at least prima facie, reasonable.

    Likewise, I can see why it gets outsized play in required general education college courses. How do you get bored 19 year olds who are only there to punch their tickets to actually do more than read and regurgitate? Seems like a number of professors settle on “Give them a question with no obvious right answer.”

    Pretty good reasons to support Trolley Problems!

    But what happens in a Star Trek–if it’s done well–or some other good story is much more than just a Trolley Problem. It’s a story. It’s a story about people. People with character–sometimes even good character.

    Sisko is one of the five most virtuous guys in all of Star Trek. If he has to make some decision whether to do some cloak-and-dagger stuff with the Romulans, we might be getting a glimpse at the actual Aristotle answer to a Trolley Problem: Do what the virtuous guy did.

    I’m assuming you saw that episode?

    • #24
  25. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    I agree that these kinds of ethical questions aren’t nearly as relevant to ethical living as more basic philosophical concepts. But I think the reason they get their outsized focus is because they’re interesting.

    I wrote my own piece on how the trolley problem shows up in Star Trek:

    https://ricochet.com/541744/of-trek-and-trolleys/

    Why are there so many episodes with this structure? Because it’s interesting. When done well, it pits sympathetic characters against each other with arguments that are, at least prima facie, reasonable.

    Likewise, I can see why it gets outsized play in required general education college courses. How do you get bored 19 year olds who are only there to punch their tickets to actually do more than read and regurgitate? Seems like a number of professors settle on “Give them a question with no obvious right answer.”

    Pretty good reasons to support Trolley Problems!

    But what happens in a Star Trek–if it’s done well–or some other good story is much more than just a Trolley Problem. It’s a story. It’s a story about people. People with character–sometimes even good character.

    Sisko is one of the five most virtuous guys in all of Star Trek. If he has to make some decision whether to do some cloak-and-dagger stuff with the Romulans, we might be getting a glimpse at the actual Aristotle answer to a Trolley Problem: Do what the virtuous guy did.

    I’m assuming you saw that episode?

    Yes. Hated it at first.

    Now I don’t know.  If I don’t automatically classify it as wrong when James Bond does it (and if I’m right to not automatically classify it as wrong), I shouldn’t automatically classify it as wrong when it’s Sisko and the Romulans.

    I’d feel better, of course, if Gandalf or Aragorn did the same thing. I’m sure they’re virtuous–more so than Sisko.  But, unfortunately, they’re stuck over there in a different story.

    • #25
  26. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    I agree that these kinds of ethical questions aren’t nearly as relevant to ethical living as more basic philosophical concepts. But I think the reason they get their outsized focus is because they’re interesting.

    I wrote my own piece on how the trolley problem shows up in Star Trek:

    https://ricochet.com/541744/of-trek-and-trolleys/

    Why are there so many episodes with this structure? Because it’s interesting. When done well, it pits sympathetic characters against each other with arguments that are, at least prima facie, reasonable.

    Likewise, I can see why it gets outsized play in required general education college courses. How do you get bored 19 year olds who are only there to punch their tickets to actually do more than read and regurgitate? Seems like a number of professors settle on “Give them a question with no obvious right answer.”

    Pretty good reasons to support Trolley Problems!

    But what happens in a Star Trek–if it’s done well–or some other good story is much more than just a Trolley Problem. It’s a story. It’s a story about people. People with character–sometimes even good character.

    Sisko is one of the five most virtuous guys in all of Star Trek. If he has to make some decision whether to do some cloak-and-dagger stuff with the Romulans, we might be getting a glimpse at the actual Aristotle answer to a Trolley Problem: Do what the virtuous guy did.

    I’m assuming you saw that episode?

    Yes. Hated it at first.

    Now I don’t know. If I don’t automatically classify it as wrong when James Bond does it (and if I’m right to not automatically classify it as wrong), I shouldn’t automatically classify it as wrong when it’s Sisko and the Romulans.

    I’d feel better, of course, if Gandalf or Aragorn did the same thing. I’m sure they’re virtuous–more so than Sisko. But, unfortunately, they’re stuck over there in a different story.

    Reminds me a bit of what Sisko tells Worf about command responsibility, in another episode:

     

    • #26
  27. Cassandro Coolidge
    Cassandro
    @Flicker

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):
    We all still experienced/remember/whatever Hitler happening, therefore none of the time-travel schemes have succeeded.

    So you’re actually talking about the real world?

    In the real world, we don’t even have time travel.

    “What do we want?”

    “Time travel!”

    “When do we want it?”

    “It’s irrelevant!”

    My business card says “Specializing in Space-time Discontinuities since 1978”.  I found it in my wallet but I don’t know how it got there.

    • #27
  28. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Saint Augustine: Now what do Kant and Mill say about this stuff?

    Almost forgot…

     

    • #28
  29. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    One celebrity teacher from whom I learned said something like, “Never answer hypotheticals. There’s always more to the situation than what is stated in the hypothetical.” 

    I agree but would add, “Never say never.” 

    • #29
  30. Cassandro Coolidge
    Cassandro
    @Flicker

    Dang.  I really thought you were going to ask if it is right to imprison one man for life or to take away his ability to defend himself because we predicted that statistically speaking doing so might potentially save a neighborhood association full of people.

    • #30
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