Improbable Railway Crises

I have serious things to do, and to write about, which have to do with The Future of (Psychological) Science, The Future of My Thesis (hopefully a very short future), and The Future of My Career (hopefully a bit longer), but… guess what?

I don’t feel like being serious right now. Instead, here is a collection of really really silly moral dilemmas, based (sometimes very loosely) on the infamous Trolley Problem(s). (Thank you, anonymous RR!) You can also try it, and many other thought experiments, here.

Funnily enough, there are two reasons why trolley problems have been doing the (social media, think-piece, dinner party) rounds again relatively recently. One is that they really are quite stupid. And as the researchers Bauman, McGraw, Bartels and Warren (2014) point out: if you’re trying to study something as Serious as morality, but your surveys are making people laugh, you may be doing something wrong. (McGraw researches humour and blogs here.)

The other reason, is that one day, a self-driving car might need to push a fat man off a bridge [discussion, article]. Or, maybe not. But self-driving cars do raise a lot of interesting ethical quandaries, as many smart people have noticed. In fact, one researcher has started reformulating the famous trolley problem in terms of autonomous cars instead (according to this article), which I have mixed feelings about because of questions to do with the context-dependence (vs not) of moral psych research… but that’s getting too serious again.

I have, by the way, used trolley problems in my own research, both for non-published thesis stuff, and in an actual real life publication. My favourite scientific papers which use the trolley problem though, are these two by Petrinovich, O’Neill, and colleagues (they put a Nazi on the tracks!), this one by Cushman, Young, and Hauser which includes the fascinating step of asking participants to justify their (“inconsistent”) responses, this one by Uhlmann, Pizarro (of wizard-podcast fame), Tannenbaum, and Ditto which features soldiers (yay) and finally another one by Cushman, which is a theory paper but includes this marvellous sentence:

“My discussion centers largely on the extensive literature motivated by moral dilemmas such as the trolley problem, but not because the ethics of improbably railway crises carry much intrinsic interest.”

This post, on the other hand, was (at least mostly) motivated by my intrinsic interest in improbable railway crises. Maybe I should have become an engineer after all.


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