Cases like the trolley problem are much discussed in philosophy. The idea behind studying cases is that it helps gain insight into complex problems, especially when experimentally testing can’t be done for practical or ethical reasons. So the trolley problem helps us gain insight into moral dilemmas. Instead of having professional philosophers discuss such cases, we can also put them to test persons or to the man in the street. For instance, a philosophical experiment on the trolley case showed that 10% of the testees were prepared to push the fat man onto the track in order to save the five people.
However, the value of such theoretical discussions for real life situations is a bit dubious. Of course, it helps to be prepared for what happens in practice and it is useful that judges and others who have to judge what people did in real life situations have a moral schooling. Nonetheless, the study of theoretical cases is not more than a help. Will you really think about the moral rules you learned, if you have a only a moment to decide what to do when confronted with a dilemma of the trolley problem type? Moreover, situations are seldom as black and white as suggested in the trolley case. You see a driverless, runaway trolley heading for a group of five people on the track, but if you turn a switch and redirect the trolley, it will head for a workman on the other track. But probably you’ll not be sure that the five or the single workman will die when hit by the trolley. Often, people are “only” seriously hurt when touched by a train but not killed. Furthermore, you can try to warn the five or the single workman. So, it’s not unlikely that you’ll turn the switch in order to save lives and that you’ll shout at the workman: “Look out! A trolley is heading for you!” You hope that the workman can jump aside or let himself fall between the rails, so that the trolley literally will run over the workman but without touching him. As we see here, philosophical problems are often not the copy of real life problems. That’s what Camus knew when he preferred his mother to the movement for the independence of Algeria (see last week). Besides that, what you’ll say when asked what to do in the trolley case may also depend on the wording used like whether the man you have to push onto the track is described as “a fat man” or “a big, heavy stranger”; whether he or the others involved are persons you know, whether or not they belong to a despised minority, and so on. There are also all kinds of other reasons that may determine what you’ll do, like your emotional resistance that you yourself have to act in order to kill an innocent single workman even if it will save five other persons.
Many moral dilemmas as they are discussed in philosophy leave out such practical circumstances and in the end they never lose the feeling of being ivory tower problems, how realistic they may be. Emotionally and otherwise it is different whether it is your mother that might be hit by a bomb in a real civil war or whether you discuss it in a philosophy class when no civil war is waging. Philosophical problems often get a different taste in real life and certainly they don’t have the drama of real life as this occurrence shows:
“On 7 January 2015 Corrine Rey, a cartoonist at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo ... returned from picking up her daughter from kindergarten. She was confronted by two French Jihadist gunmen, who threatened to shoot her daughter unless she keyed in the entry code at the door for the magazine. She did; and the gunmen entered to murder twelve people, including two policemen, as well as shooting eleven others. ..
Should Corrine Rey have been willing to sacrifice her daughter”, so the quote continues, “and herself rather than allow obvious murderers to enter the magazine and possibly kill everyone? Can a mother be blamed for only thinking of protecting her child?”
Kelly L. Ross, who made the website that I just quoted, says that the mother should not have been put in that position and that the safety measures should have been better, but I think that that’s not the problem. Life is such that not everything can be foreseen. In retrospection everything could have been done better, but for good or bad reasons the right measures are often not taken. That’s life and that’s the situation in which we have to take our decisions. Life is not an armchair.