On What Doesn’t Really Matter

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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27 Responses

  1. Jeremy says:


    But then politicians wouldn’t have anything to do, so they won’t allow that.Report

  2. Chris says:

    Over several years, I’ve run a handful of experiments inspired by some other studies that used (roughly) the original Trolley and Footbridge problems. One of the things we realized quickly was that both of those raised all sorts of problems, not the least of which is that they don’t really work together (they’re not alignable, in our language). One of the things we saw early on was that people thought it would be more moral to jump in front of the train than to throw someone. This possibility isn’t discussed much in the philosophy literature, oddly enough (sometimes it’s avoided by suggesting that the dude is really obese, but does that mean obese people should jump themselves?). So we came up with an entirely different set of dilemmas, designed to target the sorts of intuitions the Trolley family of problems are supposed to target. But it was a pain in the ass, and I mean a serious pain, to come up with a set that works. Even then, they only work in the context of our study. I suspect that ethical dilemmas that are stimulating enough to make a point outside of a narrow experimental context, but rigorously enough designed to make that point well, are going to be pretty much impossible.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

      I’d be very interested to see what you came up with, although my difficulty with this type of problem is not only the standard difficulty that many philosophers seem to have — namely, that the problems are artificial and/or contrived.

      That’s a problem, granted.  What I also observe and am troubled by is that people are lousy at predicting their own behavior or the behavior of their counterparts in extreme, life-or-death situations.

      So the students who say, “It would be more moral for me to jump” are not likely, in my opinion, actually to jump if they were presented with the situation in real life.  Nor is anyone else, necessarily.

      We may or may not learn a good deal about ethics by examining contrived situations.  The contrivance, though, is only part of the problem. The bigger problem is that talk is cheap.Report

      • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Jason, I agree. Our original problem set had to do with various taboo tradeoffs, in the context of a hospital (people don’t like to trade lives for money, e.g.). Later versions were even more mundane. None of them were entirely satisfactory, but they tested our hypothesis fairly well, I think. As well as we could expect at least. I’ll try to post a couple that make sense together later.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        This is kind of the killer problem with the veil of ignorance.Report

        • Plinko in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          As soon as I saw this post I was thinking to connect it to Murali’s post on Stillwater’s challenge for this exact reason.Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Plinko says:

            It does do a good job of informing you of the stuff that you assume.  You go behind the veil of ignorance, you make your call as to what is just, and then you come back and you think really hard about what that says about assumptions that you carried with you behind the veil without realizing you were doing so.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          Yes, exactly.  My difficulty with the veil of ignorance is that our personal attributes are not susceptible of being stripped away.  They are what we are.  Get rid of individuality, and you’ve gotten rid of personhood.  The discussants behind the veil of ignorance are not persons at all.  They are aliens, and I have no reliable idea of what they might come up with.


  3. wardsmith says:

    This is really just Milgram in a new suit of clothes.Report

  4. ThatPirateGuy says:

    No one brought this up but the scenario seems a little fat phobic.

    I wonder if our sense of valuing others more or less based on characteristics might come into play. For example are people more willing to sacriface one fat man to save 5 non-fat ones than they are to sacrifice one skinny person to save 5 fat people?Report

  5. Ken says:

    I have to say that people who speculate about whether the trapdoor will work as advertised are missing the point of the problem. I suppose you could strip it down further (some of the Saw setups might work), but if I’m reading Chris above correctly, you still get quibbles.

    Now that I think of it, I’ve been around a couple of times when someone has asked “Would you kill one person to save five?”, and several times the first reaction has been “How could that ever happen?” – meaning they want a fat-man-on-the-bridge scenario. Perhaps there is some avoidance going on?Report

  6. BlaiseP says:

    The problem isn’t the “fat guy” but the “massive guy’.  F=MA and the important variable here is the mass.

    A few open questions remain about this little paradox.   Can I say I hate little paradoxes like this?   The Massive Guy’s mass won’t be able to stop the train, it’s going to jump the rails.   Sum of vectors.  And how many people are in the train?  And even if the Massive Guy wasn’t pushed, the masses of the other people would make the train jump the tracks as surely as the Massive Guy.   Everyone’s screwed in this little parable.


  7. Jaybird says:

    These situations always remind me of the Theodicy problem.

    There are two assumptions that we begin with:

    1. Evil exists
    2. You have the power to change things

    And the fun part of the argument comes:

    Assuming your goodness, tell us what the good thing to do would be.Report

  8. North says:

    An alternative version I read once was that you see a train thundering down the track and you are standing at the switch. As currently set the train will careen into five people who have no hope of avoiding the train (indeed they’re unaware of its approach). You could, if you chose, throw the switch sending the train careening down an alternative track into one individual (similarily oblivious and incapable of evading the train) instead or foul the switch and derail the train killing dozens. It is established that you are too distant to warn either of the people on the tracks nor can you halt the train. Your options are to do nothing, allowing the train to kill five people, throw the switch causing the train to kill one person or foul the switch causing the train to kill dozens.Report

  9. strech says:

    To be honest, in either Parfit or North’s example (I’ve actually seen North’s more) I’d likely do absolutely nothing – not as moral choice but simply due to panicked indecision.

    My initial choice in Parfit’s hypothetical was “Throw myself in front of the train” because I’d like to think I’m that kind of person, but I don’t actually know if I am. To avoid that sort of answer, the hypothetical just keeps getting messier and messier as a result of trying to target the situation Parfit is going for (as Chris notes above).

    But I think the fact you have to create these new sort of feedback loops – “I’d do [x]” – “You can’t do [x] because of [y]” – “Then I’ll do [z]” shows how the hypothetical approach is the wrong approach entirely. We don’t and can’t do the sort of clean weighing of different things to measure morality like Parfit tries to give, so it doesn’t illuminate much of anything. So many of our choices are based on incomplete information (does fair trade actually help? what will the effect of this action actually be? does charity [x] do good work? how similar is animal pain and conciousness to human?). And even beyond that, not all our actions are targeted to some straightforward moral calculus; sure, a hospital in devastated Haiti or remote Rwanda where 200,000 people have no doctor is more important than wildlife re-introduction or giving someone money for college, but I’ve given some cash to all of them instead of giving the money all to the Rwanda charity.

    So anyway my new response to the hypothetical is “Fire a gadget that stops the train before reaching the people whose life it threatens”, because as long as we’re doing a fantasy-world hypothetical, I’m Batman.Report

  10. Simon K says:

    Interestingly, if you look at the original Milgram experiments in more detail, the one thing they definitely didn’t find is that people will inflict pain and suffering if ordered to do so. In fact, when Milgram’s subjects were actually ordered to administer the electric shocks, the rate of compliance fell to zero. Instead, it seems to show that people can be persuaded to inflict pain and suffering if its for what they believe to be a good cause. This doesn’t make the results any more pleasant, but it does reflect on what would be needed to actually get the average person to push the fat guy off the bridge.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Simon K says:

      It always helps to wear the white lab smock, too.   Authority derives from its uniform.Report

      • Simon K in reply to BlaiseP says:

        This is true. And the uselessness of Parfait’s thought experiments can be seem more clearly if you put the experimenter in the white lab coat in the scene issuing instructions.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Simon K says:

          Andy Taylor: Listen here, Ernest T. Bass! This is Sheriff Taylor! Go on home and leave these people alone! You’re keepin’ ’em awake!
          Ernest T. Bass: Tell ’em to go back to bed! Charlene’s the one I want to talk to!
          Barney Fife: Listen here, Ernest T. Bass! This is Deputy Fife! I’m armed and if you don’t go home, I might just take a shot at you
          [another rock come flying through the window]
          Barney Fife: Stop that!
          [Another rock hits the window]
          Briscoe Darling: Sheriff, tell your deputy to be quiet before he gets us all stoned to death!Report

      • Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

        yes, i’m told having a set of band uniforms might be helpful if the world ever goes tits up. because it doesn’t matter what uniform…Report

  11. citizen says:

    The exercise here is to push every parameter until everyone makes it out alive and unharmed. HO scale model trains kill very few people.Report