Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

The Google-Trolley Problem

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 30, 2012

Before reading this essay, read about the Google-Trolley problem here.

As a utilitarian, I’d say you should of course run into the fat man. That’s not very interesting. But what other reasons might one give to make one choice or the other?

As far as I can see, only two factors distinguish the trolley case from the fat man case. The first is that you are killing the fat man with your own hands, whereas you only indirectly kill the man on the track. [1] If one believes that this is the relevant distinction, it would be acceptable to program a computer to kill the fat man since you are not killing him yourself.

The second factor is that you use the fat man as a means stop the train—it would not stop without pushing him—whereas the man on the track only just happens to be in the way. In Kantian terms, you treat the fat man as a means to an end and not as an end in himself. Kant would say that you should program the machine not to kill the fat man.

But the real answer is that you should kill the fat man because doing so increases utility.


[1] I think this is the reason why most people switch sides between the trolley problem and the fat man problem—an aversion to direct killing, not actual moral reasoning.


4 Responses to “The Google-Trolley Problem”

  1. yboris said

    Reblogged this on YBoris.

  2. I think it would be more accurate to say killing the fat man does not *increase* utility, but rather decreases utility the *least* out of all possible options.

  3. phynnboi said

    It’s so fashionable to dehumanize fat people these days that the trolley problem has lost a lot of its punch. It’s too easy for people to rationalize sacrificing a fat man because “he’ll die soon of a heart attack, anyway,” or some such rubbish. I bet a lot of people could rationalize it into a /virtuous/ action, never mind the utility or even whether the sacrifice saves any lives! You could make the five victims also fat to balance it out, but then people simply wouldn’t care what was done, and would act randomly.

    We need an updated version. The sacrifice needs to get into peoples’ guts. It’s gotta make them hurt–to stop and think. Here are some candidate sacrifices:

    * Hot, tall, fit guy. (For straight women.)
    * 10/10 woman. (For straight men.)
    * Adorable baby or adolescent. (Generic option.)

    Or, if you want to identify the true, hardcore utilitarians, make the sacrifice their own parent, spouse, or child. After all, one’s personal familial bonds shouldn’t matter in utility calculations, right? That’d be an irrational bias.

  4. Worst CS Theorist NA said

    Consider this scenario:

    You are a doctor in a hospital.

    There are five patients who need organ transplants in a hospital, and there is one healthy person.

    Assuming that these patients are all normal people (no one is a criminal, genius, etc.) and that the rate of success for an organ transplant surgery is 100%, is it right to harvest this person’s organs to save the others?

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