Chad Perrin: SOB

16 January 2009

6 jillion will die. You get lawn chairs, I’ll get popcorn.

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 04:28

A few days ago, fellow free-thinker Mina pondered the the question: To push or not to push.

She describes a variation on a common thought experiment:

You are standing at a switching station. There are two trains, both barreling out of control. One has six jillion people on it, and the other has one person on it. There are two tracks. One track heads to safety, and one track heads to a break in the tracks on a bridge over a huge canyon. Which train do you direct to the track with the broken bridge?

This is where you say that you’ll choose to direct the train with one person in it to the bridge of doom, because it’s better one person die than six jillion.

Then the next thought problem is given, and it goes something like

There is a train barreling out of control, heading for a break in the tracks on a bridge over a huge canyon. There are six jillion people on this train. You are near the tracks with one other person. If you push this person onto the tracks, the train will hit him and stop. If you don’t push this person, the train will fall into the canyon and all six jillion people will die. Do you push the man?

Basically, what it boils down to is this:

Is it better to sacrifice a smaller number of people to save a larger number, or to fail to save a larger number to avoid taking a personal hand in killing a smaller number? Predictably, the variations on how it’s presented tend to involve trying to invoke a particular mindset in the person being asked. In the case of Mina’s example, that’s the purpose of the first of two questions.

Mina examines the inherent problems with a question like that posed by the thought experiment as they relate to mitigating factors, matters of certainty, and so on. Even that, however, fails the test of principles — which lays bare the real “value” of a thought experiment like this: it is a trap laid to catch the unwary, getting them to essentially admit to an unprincipled view of ethics. It is, in short, postmodern morality at its worst and most pure, where the only right answer is a bleeding heart. Intellect need not apply.

Of course, Mina followed that up with a strong statement to the effect that these thought experiments are nothing more than emotional blackmail, which neatly defuses the whole thing. It’s true — they’re nothing more than emotional blackmail, and that’s how the trap is sprung.

The trap does prove something, but not what it’s really intended to prove. It is a fallacious argument, a false dichotomy, where (except in cases where the questioner doesn’t even understand the most basic implications of the thought experiment) the person enacting this entrapment ends up trying to force people to choose between an untenable principled stance and a bleeding-heart, fuzzy-minded, postmodern position. In a false dichotomy fallacy, it is implied that only two options exist when, in fact, there are others. In this case, there are many others, as many different principled approaches to ethics have been developed over the years. The fact that many people think they operate on an unshakable set of ethical principles when, in fact, they haven’t really thought things through clearly, doesn’t mean there aren’t workable principles.

Basically, my answer is that I might just get some popcorn and watch, if my only options were to either kill my poor companion or watch those people die — all else being equal.

  1. It’s not my responsibility. I may act to save someone if I so choose, but that’s my choice.
  2. There are obvious negative consequences to either course of action, and someone might hold me responsible for either. C’est la vie.
  3. Ends do not justify means — though coercive circumstances may excuse them. Ethically, I’m excused in either case.
  4. Ultimate responsibility lies with whoever set up this mess in the first place. Maybe we should push him in front of a train, if only to ensure he doesn’t do something like that again.
  5. Collectives are not inherently more valuable than individuals.

So . . . if you get the lawn chairs, I’ll get the popcorn and beer, and we can watch the end of six “jillion” people’s world. Maybe while we’re there, we can engage in a real philosophical discussion, and leave this amateurish nonsense to the people who think emotional blackmail proves anything. How does that sound to you, Mina?


  1. My immediate thought was that I should jump on the tracks to be the one who would stop the train.

    Not sure if I should have my head examined.

    Comment by Antoine — 16 January 2009 @ 04:45

  2. Well . . . the ethical answer (as far as I’m concerned) is “I have no obligation to do anything under these circumstances.” Not having an obligation doesn’t mean you can’t do anything, though — and if you feel some kind of moral imperative to sacrifice yourself, have at it. You don’t even need ethical excuses for that option — just the desire to do so.

    The fact you have no obligation to sacrifice yourself in no way means you are “wrong” for doing so. That’s where ethics and morals diverge; one is about your obligations, and the other about your imperatives.

    On the other hand, I’ve actually seen people offer that answer and be told “You’re not allowed to do that. You have to sacrifice Smushee or just stand by and watch people die. Those are the only options.”

    There’s a variation on this theme meant to sidestep that “problem”, where there’s a fork in the tracks. On one side, Smushee is tied to the tracks. On the other, the tracks end at a cliff. The switch for the fork points at the cliff-side. You have to decide whether to consign Smushee to death by throwing the switch, the six “jillion” by failing to do so. Of course, this kinda mitigates the immediacy of killing Smushee, so it changes the thought experiment’s visceral quality.

    Comment by apotheon — 16 January 2009 @ 05:21

  3. Sounds good to me! The nature of these thought experiments really became clear to me after I participated in a thread where the original poster put these sorts of questions to the forum and then mocked everyone who replied, no matter which way they answered. It’s a troll’s dream; picking either option of the dichotomy makes you seem inhumane. When this thought experiment was first put to me some years ago, I felt inclined to say that pushing the man was the right answer, but I suppose it backfired because I was unsatisfied picking an answer based on what seemed the least abhorrent choice and it was exactly this thought experiment that caused me to start looking for some principle to apply. Eventually I came to the same position you hold; I agree with you already, so this probably makes for a boring reply, though points 2 and the latter half of three never occured to me, and 5 not as such. I’m not really sure what you mean by ethically excusable, does that mean you won’t get punished for it?

    In truth though, the thought experiment was really secondary to the bit about certainty, which is what I was more interested in exploring. I originally aimed to write that post without making use of the thought experiment, but when I tried I found that I couldn’t abstract what I was thinking away from the particulars of the thought experiment (hence the long time spent mulling it over), so I ended up including it. Heh, I still think I’m onto something there, though I’m not what to make of it.


    That was one of my reactions too, but that answer can also be an emotional cop-out to avoid having to deal with consigning someone to death. Even if one held, as a principle, that one should always sacrifice oneself to save others, it’s trivial to redefine the situation to one where that principle doesn’t apply, and you’re back to square one. Ultimately (as far as I’m concerned too) you have no obligation to do so.

    Comment by Mina — 17 January 2009 @ 01:36

  4. […] I recently wrote 6 jillion will die. You get lawn chairs. I’ll get popcorn. […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » ethical, unethical, and ethically excusable behavior — 17 January 2009 @ 06:46

  5. I’m not really sure what you mean by ethically excusable, does that mean you won’t get punished for it?

    In answer to that, I wrote ethical, unethical, and ethically excusable behavior. I hope that clears things up a bit.

    Heh, I still think I’m onto something there, though I’m not what to make of it.

    I’m sure you are. I just felt like addressing that kind of thought experiment myself, so I did.

    Comment by apotheon — 17 January 2009 @ 06:52

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