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A trolley problem

by John Quiggin on July 26, 2017

I’ve generally been dubious about trolley problems and similar thought experiments in ethics. However, it’s just occurred to me that an idea I’ve tried to express in the economistic terms of opportunity cost, without convincing anybody, might be more persuasive as a trolley problem. So, let’s start with the standard problem where the train is about to kill ten people, but can be diverted onto a side track where it will kill only one.

In my version, however, there is a second train, loaded with vital medical supplies, which is about to crash. The loss of the supplies will lead to hundreds of deaths. You can prevent the crash, and save the supplies, by diverting the train to an alternative route (not killing anybody), but you don’t have time to deal with both trains. Do you divert the first train, the second train, or neither?

Hopefully, most respondents will choose the second train.

Now suppose that the first train has been hijacked by an evil gangster and his henchmen, who will be killed if you divert it, but will otherwise get away with the crime. As well as the gangsters, the single innocent person will die, but the ten people the gangster was going to kill will live.

The impending crash of the second train isn’t caused by anybody in particular. The region it serves is poor and no one paid for track maintenance. If the train doesn’t get through, hundreds of sick people will die, as sick poor people always have, and nobody much will notice.

Does that change your decision?

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A non-violent, unfunny trolley problem

by John Quiggin on December 3, 2013

So, you’re a controller for a municipal trolley system with a perfect safety record. You’ve just been alerted that one of your tracks, serving a community of 5000 people has suffered unexpected damage which could cause a trolley car accident involving fatalities among philosophers. You have no budget allowance for this, so the only way of fixing the line is to abandon planned maintenance of another line, serving 1000 people, which would then have to be closed until more funds become available. Presumably, in these circumstances, most people will decide to fix the more important line.

Now, we change the situation. You no longer control the funds for the other line, which are within the jurisdiction of your colleague the Fat Controller, so named for obvious reasons. If you draw management attention to his obesity problem, HR will force him to take leave until he can get his weight within acceptable limits. You will then be given temporary control over his line and the associated budget, which you can divert to fixing the more important line.

What should you do?

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Irish Steam Trolley

by John Holbo on June 2, 2011

The National Library of Ireland is on Flickr, contributing public domain photos to the Commons. If anyone is looking for an image for the cover of their new book on trolley problems – and is too shy to ask to use mine – this might be the ticket.

Steam Tram, Antrim

Trolley Problem Follow-Up

by John Holbo on October 7, 2010

My 9-year old daughter was rather curious about my Trolley cartoons, so we made a podcast. Her art criticism is spot-on, no question, and she makes some pretty strong moral claims. What do you think? (Don’t worry. I have her permission to post this. I interviewed my 6-year old, as well, but she declined to give consent to publish her philosophical work at this time.)

Trolley Problems

by John Holbo on September 25, 2010

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. [click to continue…]

Trolley Problems

by Brian on August 30, 2003

A staple of intro philosophy courses is the ethics of runaway trolleys. There’s probably an interesting sociological study as to why this is so, but rather than delve into that I thought I’d share a new-sounding version of the trolley problem due to Carolina Sartorio posted on Philosophy from the (617).

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A cage went in search of a bird

by Maria on November 18, 2019

Publishing here my afterword for “2030, A New Vision for Europe”, the manifesto for European Data Protection Supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, who died this summer. The manifesto was developed by Christian D’Cunha, who works in the EDPS office, based on his many conversations with Giovanni.

“A cage went in search of a bird”

Franz Kafka certainly knew how to write a story. The eight-word aphorism he jotted down in a notebook a century ago reveals so much about our world today. Surveillance goes in search of subjects. Use-cases go in search of profit. Walled gardens go in search of tame customers. Data-extractive monopolies go in search of whole countries, of democracy itself, to envelop and re-shape, to cage and control. The cage of surveillance technology stalks the world, looking for birds to trap and monetise. And it cannot stop itself. The surveillance cage is the original autonomous vehicle, driven by financial algorithms it doesn’t control. So when we describe our data-driven world as ‘Kafka-esque’, we are speaking a deeper truth than we even guess.

Giovanni knew this. He knew that data is power and that the radical concentration of power in a tiny number of companies is not a technocratic concern for specialists but an existential issue for our species. Giovanni’s manifesto, Privacy 2030: A Vision for Europe, goes far beyond data protection. It connects the dots to show how data-maximisation exploits power asymmetries to drive global inequality. It spells out how relentless data-processing actually drives climate change. Giovanni’s manifesto calls for us to connect the dots in how we respond, to start from the understanding that sociopathic data-extraction and mindless computation are the acts of a machine that needs to be radically reprogrammed.

Running through the manifesto is the insistence that we focus not on Big Tech’s shiny promises to re-make the social contract that states seem so keen to slither out of, but on the child refugee whose iris-scan cages her in a camp for life. It insists we look away from flashy productivity Powerpoints and focus on the low-wage workers trapped in bullying drudgery by revenue-maximising algorithms. The manifesto’s underlying ethics insist on the dignity of people, the idea that we have inherent worth, that we live for ourselves and for those we love, and to do good; and not as data-sources to be monitored, monetised and manipulated.
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Hack Gaps and Noble Lies

by John Holbo on December 9, 2018

These days we are healthily cynical about the omnipresence of motivated reasoning in cognition and communication. Everyone is working to fool everyone, starting with themselves. (It used to be you had to read Nietzsche to learn this stuff. Ah, those were the days.) [click to continue…]

Clerihew corner (philosophy edition)

by Harry on October 31, 2017

I rediscovered Clerihews at my dad’s house recently, noticing and devouring his copy of The Complete Clerihews. Clerihews were invented by EC (Edward Clerihew) Bentley (author of Trent’s Last Case, one of the greatest detective novels to be written by someone who wrote only one detective novel). [1] They have a strict format: they must be about a person who is reasonably well known, 4 lines, with an AA BB rhyming scheme. They also seem to observe other unstated criteria. They are not cruel, or didactic, and the person about whom they are written must have some sort of substance. Gavin Ewart points out in his introduction to The Collected that they could be used for biting satire but Bentley never does that and he (Ewart) is unaware of them ever being used so. They are gentle. The pay-off would ideally come as something of a surprise, but not be completely irrelevant: Surrealism and whimsy are permitted, indeed encouraged. The name of the subject usually (but not always) comes at the end of the first line, challenging the author to find a good, but non-obvious, rhyme (as you’ll see in a moment he rhymes Plato with potato which is only one part of the genius of my favourite clerihew). There are no rules about rhythm except, as far as I can tell, that if you write several, you should vary the meter. (All Bentley’s clerihews seem to have been illustrated by GK Chesterton: I can’t rival that!).

Here are three of Bentley’s best:

The intrepid Ricardo
With characteristic bravado
Alluded openly to Rent
Wherever he went.

It was rather disconcerting for Hannibal
To be introduced to a cannibal
Who expressed the very highest opinion
Of cold pickled Carthaginian

And my favourite of all:

Although the dialogues of Plato
Do not actually mention the potato
They inculcate strongly that we should
Seek the Absolute Ideal Good.

The unwritten strictures rule out certain subjects. It seems morally dodgy to be whimsical about President Trump, for example (Bentley does one about Goebbels and Hitler, and it doesn’t feel right at all, especially when you learn it was written in 1939); and just difficult (though not impossible, and I don’t think dodgy) to be whimsical or surreal about Jacob Rees-Mogg (how can you be surreal about a person who declares himself, correctly, an embodiment of the surreal?). Bentley tends toward historical subjects – kings, presidents, philosophers, musicians, literary figures – with just a smattering of his contemporaries, most of whom are no longer household names, represented (Captain Wedgewood-Benn features – with luck there will always be a Benn about whom to write clerihews).

So, I’ve been trying to write some. They’re hard!

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Walton’s Republic

by John Holbo on January 28, 2016

“It was the most real thing that had ever happened.”
– Jo Walton, The Just City

Thanks to Jo Walton for writing an SF novel in which people, including a pair of gods, try to realize Plato’s Republic. (I’ve only read the first Thessaly novel, The Just City. So if what follows is premature? That sort of thing happens.)

This is an experimental novel. Succeed or fail, you learn from an experiment. But even well-constructed experiments can be failures. That’s the risk.

Logically such a thing should exist. A novelization of Plato’s Republic, I mean. How can no one have written this already? But can such a damn thing be written ? Surely it will fail as a novel, somewhat, at some point. But how? Only one way to find out. [click to continue…]

Hello once more! This episode of my travelogue takes in Tahiti/Moorea and Easter Island. I’m writing this from Chile, where the next episode might be quite dramatic

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Non-gory cases (in philosophy of education)

by Harry on March 23, 2015

Whenever we discuss thought experiments in moral philosophy here, Daniel and JQ give me a hard time about various things, including the goriness of the thought experiments that moral philosophers frequently use (viz, trolleys killing workers, fat men, babies drowning… you name it). During the last round one or both of them challenged us to come up with some non-gory thought experiments. I haven’t. But I do have an article in yesterday’s local paper concerning a real case which serves as a sort of thought experiment — the case of Boston Public Schools’ deliberate and explicit pandering to middle class parents in the design of its choice system. The article is part of an insert that the College of Letter and Science at UW-Madison placed in the Wisconsin State Journal which, I think, is a model for communicating the value of our research (and, to a lesser extent, teaching) to the people in the state. PDF of the insert is here.

I took the case directly from Meira Levinson’s excellent Justice in Schools site: her team, which I think shares, to some extent, JQ and Daniel’s unease about the science-fictiony and gory cases we often use in moral philosophy, has been developing a series of carefully constructed cases (all based on real decision problems), with the aim of helping academics (including philosophers) teachers, policymakers and the public to train their ability to discern what values are at stake in particular situations and better make judgments about trading them off against each other. I’m designing a course around the cases for this coming fall. My favourite reaction to the site (which I used in the description when I was seeking approval for the course) comes from a (now former) elementary ed student I know quite well, who just graduated (and was snapped up by a school district in a different state that has gotten its act together). I sent her some of the cases, which she discussed extensively with her cohort. Along with her, typically well-considered, responses, she emailed:

“I wish they would give us more readings like those in my school of education, they are much more realistic than most of the readings we do, which are more idealistic… Actually I think that tension is something I struggled with a lot throughout the program-but didn’t fully understand why it was so frustrating to me. In my practicum I would see my teachers facing problems like this one-and the other behavior case every day-multiple times a day. Then in our content classes these very real problems were almost watered down, and approached in terms of ideal theory. We talked about the benefits of all-inclusive classes, being preventative, and reflecting in action. But we never really had conversations about how this looks in imperfect practice”

Which is both right (about the justice in schools project) and…depressing.

The Game of Wrong, and Moral Psychology

by John Holbo on March 28, 2014

Apologies for extended absence, due to me teaching a Coursera MOOC, “Reason and Persuasion”.

I’m moderately MOOC-positive, coming out the other end of the rabbit hole. (It’s the final week of the course. I can see light!) I will surely have to write a ‘final reflections’ post some time in the near future. I’ve learned important life lessons, such as: don’t teach a MOOC if there is anything else whatsoever that you are planning to do with your life for the next several months. (Bathroom breaks are ok! But hurry back!)

We’re done with Plato and I’m doing a couple weeks on contemporary moral psychology. The idea being: relate Plato to that stuff.

So this post is mostly to alert folks that if they have some interest in my MOOC, they should probably sign up now. (It’s free!) I’m a bit unclear about Coursera norms for access, after courses are over. But if you enroll, you still have access after the course is over. (I have access to my old Coursera courses, anyway. Maybe it differs, course by course.) So it’s not like you have to gorge yourself on the whole course in a single week.

We finished up the Plato portion of the course with Glaucon’s challenge, some thoughts about the game theory and the psychology of justice.

They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. (358e-9a)

So I whipped up some appropriate graphics (click for larger). [click to continue…]

Sorting Hat’s Gotta Sort

by Belle Waring on December 13, 2013

OK everyone, important moral questions here! Set your trifling trolley tracks and trickery to one side! IF you were set under the Sorting Hat in Hogwart’s Academy for Witchcraft and Wizardry, would you be a Hufflepuff, a Slytherin, a Ravenclaw, or a Gryffindor? Now, it’s important to remember that the books are all about a bunch of Gryffindors who save the world a British boarding school from evil. And that Ms. Rowling, though awesome in many many ways, suffers from world-building problems in others (she is free to tell me my 7-book series, which unites all the children of the world in the love of reading, is conceptually flawed as well.)

There are larger problems, such as the eensy-weensy “er, not to Godwin your whole series, and I know your evil wizard from the 30s backstory was going there, but, um, why aren’t wizards ruling the world, with Voldemort having a continental empire, full of Muggles whom he has shuffling off, of their own accord, under the imperius curse, quite horribly with no need for guards or jailers or even wizards to construct the camps…?” Naturally in a book for children one would put it more, “why aren’t wizards trying with a bit more of a ‘can-do spirit’ to take over the world, I wonder?” Setting that aside, within Hogwart’s itself: we get Cedric Diggory to remember, and he’s super-hot and everything in a pale, unhealthy way, but otherwise, Draco Malfoy’s initial pronouncement that he’d rather not be in the school at all than be a Hufflepuff is not really gainsaid, leaving you with the impression that they are a bunch of morons. Not so! The eventual TOTAL FAIL fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, while written in some wiki fashion by libertarians, or possibly by the character Randy in Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (which some of you may have heard of from Stephenson-quoter-kun) has some very good features (I realize it does not sound at all plausible when I have laid it out like that but it really does have its moments). Fine, technically it’s written by the Less Wrong people. Waaaay different.
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Another follow-up on the philosophy styles and aggression issue, raised initially by Chris. I meant my first post to be a response, narrowly, not to Chris’ post but to the suggestion that sort of ate the comment thread: trolley problems are symptomatic of philosophers’ taste for intellectual bloodsport. (Not that tying people to tracks and running them over is sporting, mind you.) I didn’t mean to offer up the whimsical innocence of trolley tragedy as proof that philosophers don’t, otherwise, suffer from the sorts of problems that Jonathan Wolff alleges. But I actually do disagree, substantially, with the Wolff piece. Let me try to say how. [click to continue…]