Nihilism, Ethics, and the Trolley Car Dilemma
The Trolley Problem is a potentially morally corrupting piece of pro-murder propaganda with nihilistic tendencies. It imagines a scenario where a runaway trolley can be diverted by pulling a lever in order to save five lives. Unfortunately, this involves murdering an innocent person who would otherwise have been unharmed by the trolley. Murder is defined… The post Nihilism, Ethics, and the Trolley Car Dilemma appeared first on VoegelinView.

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The Trolley Problem is a potentially morally corrupting piece of pro-murder propaganda with nihilistic tendencies. It imagines a scenario where a runaway trolley can be diverted by pulling a lever in order to save five lives. Unfortunately, this involves murdering an innocent person who would otherwise have been unharmed by the trolley. Murder is defined as killing an innocent person with the intent to kill; not merely due to negligence or whatnot. “Innocent” here means, primarily, that the other person is not actively trying to kill you or someone else. Letting someone die is not murder.
When the scenario is described, perhaps the majority of people imagine that the morally correct thing to do is to is to pull the lever and murder the innocent person – for some reason forgetting that the prohibition on murder is the most fundamental, basic, and important moral rule in all of morality.
The coup de grâce of this morally repugnant invitation to murder and scapegoat is when the scenario is redescribed such that instead of pulling a lever, the murderer has to push an individual off a bridge, wedging him under the wheels of the trolley, and preventing the five people dying that way. In that situation, most people respond that they will not murder the innocent person. The philosophy professor teaching the class then points out that both scenarios are logically and morally identical. The students realize that they have exactly opposite moral intuitions about the two cases encouraging them to regard their moral intuitions with suspicion and skepticism since they are clearly unreliable in relation to the two scenarios. Moral intuitions that contradict themselves cannot be trusted.
As I have written elsewhere, another morally identical scenario would be a madman sitting on a raft with five hostages. He calls out to you that he will kill them all unless you drown the next innocent person who happens to walk along the lakeshore. You will hold them by the neck and wait for the person’s lungs to fill with water while they struggle until they are dead. Only a moral imbecile, the original name for psychopaths, would imagine that murdering the innocent person would be the right thing to do.
In conversation recently, someone (X) argued that saying that pulling the lever is murder begs the question. It does not. Pulling the lever matches the definition of murder – the unlawful premeditated killing of another innocent human being. X then proposed redescribing the murder by saying that the killer was not intending to kill the person, he intended to save the five others. Somehow, he imagines that the “real” intention is to save the people and, after all, he is just pulling a lever, not killing anyone. The fact that pulling the lever results in someone dying is neither here nor there and nothing to do with him. He does not intend to kill the innocent person. He intends to save the five people. This nonsensical suggestion ignores the fact that you intend to save five people by murdering an innocent person. X is turning morality into a meaningless semantic game and is speaking in bad faith.
Words like “prevarication,” “dissembling,” “equivocation,” and “circumlocution,” come to mind. He joins Bill Clinton in “not having sex with that woman.” When asked by his aides about Monica Lewinsky Clinton said “There is nothing going on between us.” In explaining why he was not lying to a grand jury he said “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the—if he—if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. … Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”[1] Clinton is lying by omission. According to his pedantic is/was distinction, unless he was actually in the process of banging Lewinsky while being asked whether he was having sex with her he could, with a perfectly clear conscience, declare that he was not. Clinton went so far as to define oral sex as not sex; supposedly causing a whole generation of Americans to think that having oral sex would not count as cheating on someone. I am tempted to write a whole list of other things that would also not count as sex according to this mode of thinking, but issues of taste will prevail.
Philosophers are not supposed to play crappy lawyerly word games. Imagine that X is tied to a special table blocking my access to the fridge. However, there is a lever. If I pull the lever the table will start to move in two opposite directions driven by an electric motor. X will be torn in half as the table separates. Access to the fridge will then be possible. According to X, I am not responsible for X’s painful death. I just want something to eat. My intention is to eat, not to kill. Ipso facto, I am blameless. Hey, man, I’m just pulling a lever. If X screams, begging me not to kill him, I will reply that I have no intention of killing him. I am just hungry. Now, get out of my way.
Likewise, someone who kills a romantic rival out of jealousy could say, “I do not want to kill anyone. I just want the woman to myself. My intention is romantic bliss, not murder, for goodness sake.” Such reasoning is psychotic, not rational.
Treating someone as a means to a supposedly good end does not make one’s actions moral. Quite the reverse.
X then piles one moral and philosophical mistake onto another. He agrees that the lever version is morally equivalent to the trolley car individual version only to argue that this means you should do both. Pull the lever and push the individual to stop the trolley car. He claims that the visceral emotional repugnance to pushing someone to stop the trolley car is irrational precisely because emotions are involved. The emotionless lever pulling is “rational” and thus it is rational to push the lone individual who—in the scenario—stops the car from killing others.
That is precisely the problem, the lever allows us to suppress our emotional and moral reluctance to murder because it makes killing less tangible. The murder becomes more abstract. The reality of the person we are killing is less apparent to us. We do not kill human beings precisely because they are thinking, feeling, agents like us. If they were an emotionless robot, we would find it a lot less hard to kill them, and in fact, it would be less immoral to do so. By acting in the manner of an emotionless robot we ironically end up treating the murder victim as an emotionless robot too.
If you ask someone to solve a simple math problem before asking him to donate to charity, he gives less. Activating purely intellectual pathways interferes with moral evaluation and preferences.
“The studies of decision-making in neurological patients who can no longer process emotional information normally suggest that people make judgments not only by evaluating the consequences and their probability of occurring, but also and even sometimes primarily at a gut or emotional level. Lesions of the ventromedial (which includes the orbitofrontal) sector of the prefrontal cortex interfere with the normal processing of “somatic” or emotional signals, while sparing most basic cognitive functions. Such damage leads to impairments in the decision-making process, which seriously compromise the quality of decisions in daily life.”[2]
My article Monsters of Duty: Cordwainer Smith’s attack on Kantian morality and the suppression of feeling in Scanners Live in Vain from which the above quotation is drawn argues that Cordwainer Smith’s short story is a brilliant analysis of the role that emotion plays in moral decision making.
Morality cannot be derived from merely rational processes. At the core of morality is a recognition that human life is sacred as we are made in the image of God. Without this appeal to intrinsic value, derived from a divine source, morality cannot function. Extrinsic value is parasitic on intrinsic value. Reciprocity, which is fundamentally gift giving, is right and just. This is an axiom. Like all axioms, its truth can be perceived but not proven, rationally or otherwise, just like the axiom P = P. Goedel proved that even mathematics cannot be completely formalized and reduced to the manipulation of symbols. Insight and intuition are needed even for that. The right hemisphere provides the material to be analyzed and the left hemisphere does the analyzing. Without the input of the RH, the LH has nothing to contemplate.
Metaethics is perfectly reasonable; looking at the religious foundations of ethics and figuring out the implications. Moral theories, on the other hand, are LH affairs. Utilitarianism and Kant’s deontology are attempts to put moral reasoning on a more rational footing. In the process, they generate moral abominations and encourage people to behave worse than if they merely followed their moral intuitions, assuming the person is not a moral imbecile. Both theories represent a reversion to pre-Christian scapegoating. Utilitarianism says that whatever is best for the majority is morally good – hence it sides with the mob vs the victim. Kantianism sacrifices the victim in the name of the moral law, refusing to lie even to save someone’s life – demonstrating greater allegiance to “rational” moral law rather than the person. Kant is in love with the starry heavens above and the moral law within, not the innocent victim. So much for rationality. Mere rationality is not rational. Moral decision making is dependent on the thinking feeling person, and on the transcendent.
Saving the best for last, perhaps, it dawned on me a few days ago in class, that it would be morally justified to shoot anyone who made a move towards pulling the lever. Police officers, who have a special moral duty, having sworn to uphold the law, would be morally required to shoot the would-be murderer in order to save an innocent person from murder. An ordinary civilian cannot be legally required to prevent crime, but it would be morally laudable if he killed the would-be lever puller in defense of the innocent. As soon as you make a move to murder someone, you lose your right to life if killing you is necessary to stop you.
X brought up a scenario where the would-be murderer is insane and thus his moral agency is compromised as a way of arguing that it is OK to kill the innocent person on the trolley tracks. One could imagine too that someone was infected with rabies which changes the brain of the rabid person to mindlessly, and violently, bite people infecting them with a disease that has, effectively, a 100% fatality rate – if we imagine that the infected person would not be able to get to a hospital in time to receive preventative treatment. In both the cases of the insane person and rabid person who is also insane, they have lost agency and are no longer morally responsible for their actions. It would still be necessary to kill them to protect the innocent who they are about to kill. Neither person would be morally blameworthy because devoid of agency. Both would have to be killed in the manner of a rabid dog. They have lost their humanity to the extent that they are no longer a moral agent. They deserve pity but are now an immediate threat to an innocent person who must be protected. No such considerations extend to the person the lever puller intends to murder.

NOTES:

[1] Timothy Noah, Bill Clinton and the Meaning of “Is”, Slate, September 13, 1998. <https://slate.com/news-and-politics/1998/09/bill-clinton-and-the-meaning-of-is.html>
[2] Antoine Bechara, “The role of emotion in decision-making: Evidence from neurological patients with orbitofrontal damage,” Brain and Cognition 55 (2004) 30–40.

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