Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mercy On Us

I wanted to write a post about sterile ethical quandaries like the trolley problem, and contrast that with real-life situations in which people had to make horrible decisions. So I started Googling to see if I could turn up the article I read a few years ago, in which a man from Rwanda, a Hutu, was offered a choice by the mob: either kill his Tutsi wife, or the mob would kill his whole family. The wife begged him to kill her instead, and so, machete in hand, he chopped at her as she sobbed and implored him to do it quickly. His children saw the whole scene. Later, the family immigrated to Canada, where the man is still haunted by the screams of his dying wife.

I couldn't find the article. Instead I stumbled upon the account of a Tutsi woman who, during the 100 days of genocide in 1994, was raped in her own home by 500 men while her children cowered in the next room. Now I'm too sick at heart to write witty prose on the trolley problem. Jesus, have mercy.

Thought process started by Enbretheliel's post featuring a short film called Black Button.


Brandon said...

I think it pretty much says it all about trolley problems, though. Why are they so popular in ethics? In part because they are so sanitized and sterilized and you don't have to be haunted by them. It's connected to the fact that the Fat Man who shows up in a number of variations ends up being dropped on train tracks, blown up, etc.: it's cartoon ethics.

mrsdarwin said...

Brandon, "cartoon ethics" is a valuable phrase, summing up a whole school of moral choices with no consequences.

Enbrethiliel said...


I wasn't going to leave a comment, but the captcha is "speake."

I read part of the story you linked, Mrs. Darwin--not daring to read quite everything and jumping quickly tot he end--and when I resurfaced to the insouciant sounds of Man vs. Food (one of my brother's favourite programmes) on the other room and an unfinished review of a Baby-sitters Club book before me, the dissonance was awful. What was I still doing in front of the PC? Why wasn't I on my knees before the family altar, pleading for mercy?

Darwin said...

Good point, Brandon.

It strikes me that one of the prime purposes of "ethical dilemmas" like the trolley problem, famous violinist, etc. is to produce an alleged ethical situation so cleansed of reality as to allow people to endorse evils without feeling it. (One can only hope that the resolution does not carry through to real life.)

A couple months back, in an argument as to whether it was morally right to do one evil in order to prevent a larger one, I was challenged: "Don't you agree that any sane and moral person would voluntarily kill one person -- even five people -- if doing so would prevent a nuclear war from being launched?"

I objected that such arguments were pointless, because that's not how reality works and was urged to address the problem since it was helpful to think of abstract cases.

My response was, "Okay, here's my abstract case. You are told that a madman is about to launch a nuclear warhead at a populous city, and the only way to persuade him not to do this is for you to rape a three year old in front of her mother. Would you rape the three year old?"

To which I was told, "I'm not going to answer that, as you're being needlessly provocative."

In the sanitized world of the pseudo-ethical dilemma, "kill five innocent people" is taken as a clean image, and thus people are encouraged to start making trade-offs in this imaginary world sanitized of humanity. Supply a visceral imagine of actually doing evil to a person and the illusion is shattered.

berenike said...

Not a new phenomenon. In "Modern Moral Philosophy", Anscombe writes:

But if someone really thinks, in advance,[7] that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration‑-I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.

The footnote says:

In discussion when this paper was read, as was perhaps to be expected, this case was produced: a government is required to have an innocent man tried, sentenced and executed under threat of a "hydrogen bomb war." It would seem strange to me to have much hope of so averting a war threatened by such men as made this demand. But the most important thing about the way in which cases like this are invented in discussions, is the assumption that only two courses are open: here, compliance and open defiance. No one can say in advance of such a situation what the possibilities are going to be‑-e.g. that there is none of stalling by a feigned willingness to comply. Accompanied by a skillfully arranged “escape” of the victim.

skholiast said...

I am far from wishing to defend the abuse of casuistry, but I think the point of the trolley problem is being missed here. It is not some exercise in weighing whether a Rembrandt is worth more than a baby, or for that matter whether a crying baby should be smothered to save a bus load of refugees. The point was that given the scenarios, people don't hesitate to flip a switch, but they recoil from shoving the fat man. I take very well Brandon's point about "cartoon ethics" and I grant that both scenarios are vulnerable to this criticism. But the point of the trolley problem lies not in what your answer is to scenario one or two, but in the contrast between people's (usual) instinctive responses to the different scenarios.

In any case, I take it that Dostoevsky has already sufficiently addressed the question of torturing one innocent person to death for "a good cause"-- and a far better cause than sparing a city a nuclear strike. And, it is worth noting that "it is better that one man should suffer than that the nation should perish" is a rationale that was addressed well before Dostoevsky.

On the Trolley and its problems, I commend this post

Brandon said...

But the point of the trolley problem lies not in what your answer is to scenario one or two, but in the contrast between people's (usual) instinctive responses to the different scenarios.

This has come to be the point sometimes in academic contexts. But this way of using trolley problems has no special privilege: it's not what Foot and Thomson were doing originally (which was arguing about the moral difference between killing and letting die), it's not what led people to use trolley problems in arguing for and against double effect, and it's not what motivates someone like Otsuka, who is probably the foremost 'trolleyologist' today, to study trolley problems. Even the idea that they are useful for displaying differences in moral intuitions is a relatively new thing (in papers from Foot's and Thomson's discussion and shortly afterward, it's quite commonly remarked, on the basis of informal surveying of friends and colleagues, how little people's intuitions vary, in fact, even when some differences are noted) and has arguably arisen out of disappointment with them as devices for argument.

Outside of the academic context -- and they have spread far and wide outside the academic context due to Intro Phil courses -- all bets are off, of course: they can be used for any point whatsoever.

I am extraordinarily skeptical of claims, such as that made at the post to which you link, that trolley problems are "a wonderful pedagogical device to shock students out of their complacency and get them actually thinking." This is directly contrary to all my experience in teaching Ethics, in which students quickly and consistently turn trolley problems into a game. The class where they most obviously get shocked out of their complacency and set to actually thinking? The class in which we discuss Philip Hallie's "From Cruelty to Goodness," about the real village of Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon and what motivated them to save thousands of Jewish children at great risk to themselves.