Those of you who read One Little Library have often heard me say that one of the qualities I like in a novel is an ethical dilemma. I like seeing someone stuck between two morally conflicting choices. Why? Do I enjoy inflicting that kind of psychological pain on people? No, of course not. It’s more like I can’t help but pick at a scab, or tear more peeling paint off the wall. I am intensely uncomfortable in morally ambiguous situations, so I’m drawn to them like a fly to bright light. I need to know: What should we do?!
Needless to say, this book discomfited and intrigued me all at the same time.
The Trolley Problem is a common philosophical dilemma, originally created by British philosopher Philippa Foot. Essentially, the problem is this: You are in a trolley and the driver for some reason loses control of the vehicle. You are on a track heading straight toward five people. If the trolley continues, you will hit and, presumably, kill the five people. But there is a side rail, where only one person is standing. If you take control and divert the trolley onto the side rail you will hit and, presumably, kill the one person. Do you do it? (Case A)
Most of us would say yes. But this book digs into the question in a much deeper way. Cathcart sets up a fictional scenario of the trolley problem and presents several different arguments through a court case, news articles, college class debates, and journal articles.
Three other analogous situations are discussed:
- A doctor is brought five dying patients, all who need various organ transplants, and one healthy patient. Should he take the organs from the healthy patient (who will certainly die if his organs are taken) and give them to the five others so that they will live? (Case B)
- Someone is watching the trolley careening out of control toward the five people on the rail. This person sees that the side rail only has one person on it, and there is a switch nearby which, if flipped, will divert the trolley onto the side rail. In this case, this person has the option to do nothing. What should they do? (Case C)
- Someone is standing on a bridge above the trolley careening out of control. If a big enough weight is dropped in front of the trolley, it will halt the trolley’s progress and stop it from killing the five people. The man looks around and the only weight big enough to stop the trolley is a fat man standing nearby. Should the man throw the fat man off the bridge in order to stop the trolley? (Case D)
How are any of these four cases different? In all cases, the life of one person is sacrificed to save five. This basic mathematical justification is called utilitarianism. But Cathcart raises many other arguments against utilitarianism. It is a whirlwind introduction to the philosophical theories of Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, G. E. Moore, Peter Singer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Niccolo Machiavelli.
Cathcart skillfully pushes against every theory and introduces new twists to each hypothetical scenario. What if the side rail was a loop instead, so that the person on the side rail might stop the trolley from killing the others, but might not? What if the person flipping the switch knew that the person on the side rail was going to someday cure cancer? What if the five people were all women, and the person on the side rail was a man? What if that was reversed (five men vs. one woman)? What if the five people were white, and the person on the side rail was a racial minority? Is it ok to even compare the four different scenarios, or should each one be treated individually? What roles do religion, emotion, psychology, or biology play in helping us make moral decisions?
I applaud Cathcart for this witty look into a hypothetical scenario that has real implications for our lives. Some people are tired of “trolleyology,” the obsessive look at the trolley problem. But Cathcart argues that it’s important for us to go through these mental gymnastics and analyze how we make decisions. These metacognitive skills will help us make decisions about real-life moral conundrums. I wholeheartedly agree.
This book is only about 100 pages and will take no more than two hours of your time. Please read it.