Evergreen philosophy topic! Sure to inspire much friendly discussion!
I don’t usually lecture about the stuff myself, but this semester I decided to, so I cartooned up some images for the PPT slides. So the first thing I have to say is that if anyone has a use for ‘em, I’ve released ‘em under a CC license.
Yer basic Cartoon Modern trolley. (I thought of going more for a “Toonerville Trolley” look. But it’s not my style.)
The Classic Trolley Situation
The Fat Man On The Bridge. (Adapted from a Robert Ludlum novel, The Adipose Conundrum.)
Now, of course, there have been many fine parodies and mockeries of Trolley Problems. Personally, I think rewriting Green Eggs and Ham might be a good approach. “Would you like the greatest Good?” “No, I do not think I should!” Then foxes and boxes and trains and etc. (Have a go in comments.)
I also like the fact that Wikipedia flags a relatively flat, straight, standard statement of the problem as containing ‘weasel words’.
A semi-serious issue: Trolley Car Ethics is often singled out as the apotheosis of analytic-style absurdity. Anglo-American-style philosophers are forever accused of suffering from a severe, Aspergers-like condition, causing them to be incapable of apprehending anything but the model train sets in their basements. (I’m told David Lewis had elaborate model train sets.) But it seems to me the criticism is more effective if made more mildly: the problem is not that Anglo-American, analytic-style philosophers (call them what you like) are severely autistic but that they are mildly whimsical. This style of example-mongering complements a characteristic style of seminar room cleverness. There’s an intellectual ethos that goes with this social ethos; and, if you ask me, there’s a lot to be said for it. But the concern is that it’s going to clog the so-called ‘intuition pump’. People aren’t reporting their ‘intuitions’. Period. Rather, they are telling you what they would say, once you’ve set the mood for a good, seminar-style go-round. The examples are supposed to take you out of the seminar room, imaginatively. But plausibly they do the opposite – are really designed to do the opposite. They export the socially and intellectually distinctive seminar room atmosphere to a whole, slightly off-kilter world.
I decided to teach the Trolley stuff because I recommended that my students listen to one of Sandel’s “Justice” lectures, and he talks about Trolley stuff. I’m pleased with how the cases play in the classroom, as it turns out. Good discussion and heightened appreciation of general issues. Utilitarianism and its discontents. I also think the bug – namely, these situations are silly – can be a feature. You pump students for their ‘intutions’. Then you talk about how making the stories silly is likely to distort responses. What ‘normal’ elements of response are amplified or suppressed? Which in turn is a good lead-in to further thoughts about utilitarianism and its discontents.