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

Friday, July 01, 2011

Trolley Madness

At last, I have come across the Trolley Problem which truly gets at the difficulties of modern life.
On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.

On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans’ bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, ‘Leftie,’ and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, ‘Leftie’ will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of ‘Leftie’s’ act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by ‘Leftie’ are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and ‘Leftie’ are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available; however, the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.

Assume that the brain’s choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.

What should the brain do?
Excerpted from:
– Michael F. Patton Jr., “Tissues in the Profession: Can Bad Men Make Good Brains Do Bad Things?”, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, January 1988


Anonymous said...

The brain is going to have a kernel panic and shut down.

Much like mine did after reading through that problem. I haven't had any coffee today.

Enbrethiliel said...


There's something about this problem that I really, really love. It's just so intricately frustrating--like the world's longest rhetorical question, asked not to get an answer but to make a point.

And the point is that trolley problems make fun, but ultimately pointless parlour games. Let's all just take up Go.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

These days, I'm informed, you would have to add that it's not certain whether the brain-in-a-vat is actually a brain, or a zombie brain that possesses all brain phenomena but lacks ... a mind? a soul? whatever would make it really a brain.

A Philosopher said...

Zombies (and also zombie-brains-in-vats) have beliefs and desires as normal, but have no experiential states. No pain, no happiness, no visual experience. But they do *think* they're in pain, *think* they're happy, an *think* they're seeing things (and reliably form beliefs on the basis of what they think is their visual phenomenology).

The basic idea is captured in Australian super-star philosopher David Chalmer's performance of The Zombie Blues. (Which I once got to hear him sing at three in the morning as we were wandering the streets of Tlaxcala. The philosophical world is a much stranger place than most people realize.)

The brain, by the way, should steer right.

Brandon said...

Classic. Saint Gasoline had a similar argument in comic form, poking fun at a whole range of these thought-experiment-type things in contemporary philosophy:

I really like Enbrethiliel's comment above about it being the longest rhetorical question in the world, because that really does sum up a lot of amateur trolleyology.

Laura said...

Goodness! I thin the brain shouldn't choose any road and wait and see who he ends up killing :)

sciencegirl said...

The brain SHOULD steer right under a utilitarian model, but it will steer left because it is ignorant of "crucial" information. I illustrate this on my blog .

I think another way to solve this problem is to leave it up to chance; flip the rail back and forth so that which person is killed is ultimately due to chance.

Maiki said...

Both choices are evil, the brain in the jar is not culpable in this case. I don't think it matters which choice the brain picks -- the brain should pray for a miracle.

Bob the Ape said...

Cried a brain in a vat in a trolley,
"My gosh! Oh my goodness! Oh golly!
Whomsoever I kill,
I wreak both good and ill,
Ergo, choosing to choose is mere folly!"


Said the sad, discombobulate brain,
"This philosophy is such a strain
That I firmly refuse
To decide, opt, or choose -
From now on I'll be taking the train."