F*ing Trolleyology


(I quite like real trolleys, though.)

A while ago the New York Review ran an article on trolleyology.  I was a little disappointed.  Trolleyology drives me crazy, which tells me that I take myself too seriously, but there it is.

What is trolleyology?  It’s a game played by philosophers of ethics.  Suppose you saw five people tied to a track with a runaway trolley headed for them.  Then suppose there was a switch you could throw to direct the trolley onto a siding, but there was a sixth person tied up on that siding.  Would you do it?  What if there was a fat man standing by who would derail the trolley if you pushed him under its wheels?  The situations are ludicrous but writers are quick to point out applications to issues like abortion; It surprises me that I don’t recall any mention of civilian deaths in war.

Philosophers of a psychological bent apparently get a kick out of seeing the contradictory ways that people respond to these sorts of questions posed in different ways and orders.  Those are the kinds of picky arguments I resent being badgered with, and in my imaginary grapplings with them, I can never resist the temptation to answer “none of the above”.  If I ever see five people tied up on the train tracks, I won’t lose a moment finding the psycho who is responsible, and I’ll be looking for the moral philosophers first.

Seriously, I am forced to concede that we probably can learn something from these games.  I don’t necessarily concede that it’s worthwhile.  It’s easy to get mired in details when the truth may lie in an entirely different direction.   Speaking of works that go in a different direction I’ve been really meaning to get around to reading Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.  It’s worth a try.

Photo is by Adam E. Moreira, via Wikimedia Commons, CC Attribution Share Alike.