Utilitarianism versus psychopathy


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Wait… Exactly how “fat” is this fat man that he can stop a runaway trolley?



One of my many objections to the trolley problem: it’s as if the more you understand physics, mechanics, and have a based-on-experience, real-world intuition for what works, the more you’ll realize that that fat man might not be fat enough to stop the trolley.

And besides, if he’s fat enough, he might be so heavy that you might not be able to push him. And he might miss hitting the trolley just the right way and end up crushing his head but not stopping the trolley, which would go on to still kill the people.

So often, these classic thought experiments are of the nature “Assume pi is equal to exactly three and then…”


… in which the greater good trumps individual welfare.

Maybe now they could just ask whether you get your kids vaccinated or not…?


Well, you have to imagine that every possible factor has been addressed and everything has been expertly arranged for this man to die. You must be sure in your mind that the mechanism to save the trolley full of sinless passengers upon the man’s death has been well tested and certified in compliance with the necessary guidelines for deadly switch systems. And I think that it’s ok to imagine hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been escorted through this process under the watchful eye of a staff of researchers observing from some sort of windowed room above the death arena.

::blink blink::

You are told that the fat man would stop the trolley. Is it because he is super-fat? Is it because the trolley-has sub-standard wheels made in Croatia? Is it because the driver will attempt to careen at the last moment and overturn because of the fat-man’s sudden appearance? Is it because the fat-man’s changed location will subtly alter gravity just enough to change the path of a micrometeroite that will pierce a critical cable and engage the emergency brakes of the trolley?


It is a thought experiment. You are told that the fat man would stop the trolley. Real-world intuition doesn’t play into it. You are told that the fat man would stop the trolley. These are the variables. You are told that the fat man would stop the trolley. No more, no less.


A stupid thought experiment that makes you wonder why it would possibly work is probably a very poor judge of peoples’ personality.

Also, making it specifically “a fat man” engages biases about weight, and possibly gender, and even privelege. Stereotypes. I’m overweight myself, have been since I was very young, and yet I still picture Vernon Dursley here because it’s easier to contemplate than, say, one of my coworkers.


Maybe it’s also a credulousness test? (or a recruitment test for evil henchmen)


It’s an interesting point, and I think I get it. The fat man doesn’t exist, and neither do the kids. Not only are you “not killing the fat man;” you’re not even facing the dilemma. Killing real people is very different from killing hypotheticals, as video games demonstrate. So regardless which outcome you choose, it’s an easy choice.

A lot of philosophies boil down to making easy choices about people who aren’t real. The horror begins when we dehumanize actual people… and then push them in front of trolleys.


The fat man is a lie.


It’s Santa Claus.


If the trolley can be stopped by just one man, it isn’t going to damage the bus nor its passengers. Basic physics.

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British folk don’t have to worry about trolleys http://image.made-in-china.com/4f0j00cBzEvdSGLVbN/Trolley.jpg

Or physics?

You don’t need to wonder why it works – you are told it works. The point is your reaction. If your reaction is “Why wouldn’t the cat just jump out of the box” it tells us something.


Therein lies the fundamental limitation of thought experiments. It’s why they don’t substitute for real data. A thought experiment is about reducibility, but that immediately calls into question how reducible you can actually be and still have connection to an objective reality. You can design constraints in a thought experiment, but honestly, it really does help sometimes to say, “Wait, what if that doesn’t happen? Like rarely or ever?” A lot of chemistry is still at this stage. We can push electrons around on paper and design equations and pretend we have a mechanism, we may even be right, but if the goal of a thought experiment is to answer a broader question, questioning its premise is extremely practical. What if you load fifty people into a room, and all of them refuse to answer the question? That’s a lot more interesting as an experimental result than forcing them to all adhere to the rules of the study and generating a result.


I am liking this, but only hypothetically liking it…


When my mom was teaching me to drive, she would randomly yell out some fake emergency, like a kid running out in the street chasing a ball, and expect me to react as if I had seen whatever thing. Instead each time I just looked over at the person screaming in the passenger seat.


Hypothetically speaking I would as well, but I’ve hypothetically reached my daily limit of hypothetical likes.

In this thread, pedantry intensifies.


Maybe it’s just because I first heard this false dilemma during an ethics class at a Jesuit school, but I thought the point was to see just how long it took for someone to realize that sacrificing one’s self is an option that avoids murder either by action or inaction.