Thinking About Thinking

Would You Press The Button?

Posted in Philosophy by larrycheng on May 13, 2009

Since this blog is named after my favorite class in college, as noted in my first post, it’s only appropriate that the second post be related to my second favorite class in college: Justice.  (I’m moderately surprised I still remember content from my college classes.)  Justice is a class that is offered once every three years and entails 1,000+ students engaging in moral debate and reasoning with Professor Michael Sandel.  There was one particular exercise that was uniquely memorable that I would like to replay here.

The overarching scenario is this: A high-speed train has a brake failure and is going out of control down a main railroad track.  Up ahead lies a fork to an alternate track.  You, and only you, can push a button to cause the train to move to the alternate track at the fork. Following are scenarios of what lies ahead after the fork.  Where an individual is involved, presume that that individual is stuck and if you send the train down their particular path, it will lead to their imminent demise.  The key question with each scenario is would you press the button?

Scenario 1

  • Main Track:  A railroad worker.
  • Alternate Track: No one.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 2

  • Main Track: A railroad worker.
  • Alternate Track: A young child.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 3

  • Main track: A young child.
  • Alternate Track: A railroad worker.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 4

  • Main Track:  A young child.
  • Alternate Track: A railroad worker passed out from getting drunk when he was supposed to perform routine maintenance on the brake of the train in question.  If he had done the work, the train would have functioned properly.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 5

  • Main Track:  A railroad worker who is on death row and is working there as part of prison labor work.  And your mom.
  • Alternate Track: A young child.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 6

  • Main track: You.
  • Alternate Track: A young child.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Scenario 7

  • Main track:  Nobel laureate 1 day away from finding the cure to cancer.  If he perishes, it will be 50 years until someone finds the cure.
  • Alternate Track:  You, your whole family, and every person you’ve ever cared for.
  • Press Button: Yes or no?

Obviously, the scenarios could have infinite variations (if you have a good one, would love to hear it).  But perhaps more important than whether you would press the button in any given scenario, is why you’d press the button.  If we could do this in a dialogue without the benefit of seeing all of the future scenarios, you would hear students argue adamantly in a given scenario that a certain principle is THE principle that should drive the decision.  But the very next scenario would undermine that student’s conviction on that principle as it gets a little more complicated – making consistency nearly impossible.  I thought this would be a fun way to start off this blog as it’s not that I’m looking for readers to give their decision and rationale for each scenario (though if any brave soul would like to try, go for it).  Rather, I think this exercise helps us to appreciate that we don’t have all the answers – which is often the starting point of a great discussion.

16 Responses

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  1. Scot Wingo said, on May 13, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    You just re-invented the Infamous Kobayashi Maru:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobayashi_Maru

    Thus I’m forced by Star Trek oath to tell you: “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”

    Live Long and Prosper

    • larrycheng said, on May 13, 2009 at 4:28 pm

      Fascinating – see I’m not a trekky that’s why I don’t know these things. Enjoy the softball game Scot – good catching up with you.

  2. Rob Go said, on May 13, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Scot’s response was probably the best response imaginable. Very nice…

  3. Stephen J said, on May 13, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    Speaking as a trekky I agree with Rob, very cool response. I like your closing sentence Larry. It’s a lesson I believe all of us should apply more. We don’t have all the answers, and though its good to show conviction, we need to continually reassess based on new information as its provided.

  4. Daniel Sparling said, on May 13, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Hey Larry!

    I was a philosophy minor so I have run across (no pun intended) this train track thought experiment before and remember enjoying the discussions that followed. Since I’m procrastinating putting together a marketing plan presentation I decided to share my thoughts!

    Scenario 1: Push the button. That’s an easy one.

    Scenario 2: Don’t push the button. If a railroad worker was dumb enough to get himself stuck in a railroad track I’m not going to cause an innocent kid to die in his place.

    Scenario 3: Push the button. See Scenario 2.

    Scenario 4: Push the button. See Scenarios 2 and 3. (I have no problem with altering the course of the train by the way. Someone may say that makes me the cause of someone dying but if I choose not to do anything I am still choosing to allow someone to die, which in my mind is the same thing.)

    Scenario 5: Push the button. Sorry kid, but chances are that you are not going to do as much good in your life that my Mom has and will continue to do. If you don’t like that answer, then I’d go with saving two lives is better than saving one. (By the way, what the heck is my Mom doing on a railroad track with a death row inmate?)

    Scenario 6: Don’t push the button. I’d like to think that I’d be willing to die for the life of a child, but no one could possibly know how they would act in that moment. (And who the heck designed this railroad track so that I can be stuck on the tracks and still be able to reach a button on a control panel somewhere? That guy should be the one on the track!)

    Scenario 7: Sorry, I reject the Scenario altogether. I know its just a thought experiment and that we are suspending our disbelief that somehow these individuals can find themselves in this situation, but the idea that I am aware of the future of Mr. Noble Laureate’s research with absolute certainty to the point of sacrificing everyone I love is too far fetched for me. So I refuse to answer since absolute knowledge of the future is not possible and therefore this Scenario isn’t possible. (But if you offered me a cookie for an answer I’d say I wouldn’t push the button, sorry Mr. Noble!)

    Thats my 2 cents.

    -Sparling

  5. Cory Armbrecht said, on May 13, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Ok, take this with a grain of salt, because as said before, you wouldn’t really know what you would do until you were there.

    You really should watch Star Trek II and Star Trek III, as there are two quotes and decisions that relate to this.

    STII: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

    I believe in this statement, and that includes if the few are loved ones. In Star Trek III, the situation changes from the second movie-

    STIII: “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”

    I don’t think truth is relative, although I’d love to change what’s right in different situations. I think it has to do with my beliefs really, and even though it might suck sometimes, that’s just the way it is. To touch on Sparling’s post, even though this is a hypothetical question, the question still remains. If by some crazy way, this situation happened, you couldn’t just say, “Hey wait, stop! I reject this problem!” It would happen, and you would have to make a choice. Also saying that ‘you wouldn’t make a choice’ would mean that you kept going forward, which means you did in fact make the choice.

    It’s funny how movies touch on these things sometimes.

    • Daniel Sparling said, on May 13, 2009 at 7:38 pm

      Cory-

      What I rejected about the last Scenario is the part about knowing Mr. Noble was going to discover his cure for cancer the following day and the follow up that if he died it would take 50 years to come up with the discovery.

      There’s no way to know that since it breaks what I consider to be basic rules about the predictability of the future. You simply cant know that something like that would happen. It’s a flaw in the logic of this scenario. So this scenario could never happen; so I would never find myself in it.

      The last scenario has a very different assumption tied to it that the others don’t have. That is we are being told a part of the outcome of our decision in the scenario.

      A better Scenario would be that Mr. Noble already knows the cure for cancer but hasn’t had the chance to tell anyone yet. If this were the case, would I press the button?

      (But I’ll warn you…if you didn’t like the way I side-stepped the last scenario, you’re gonna hate this part…)

      Unfortunately this scenario still isn’t possible since I would certainly care for the man who has discovered the cure for cancer. And since everyone I care for is on the Main track, including therefore Mr. Noble, he can’t be on the Alternate track as well! Scenario debunked again! (Yes, I was a pain in the ass in philosophy class sometimes…!)

      But I totally agree with you about not making a choice. The band “Rush” says it best in one of their songs, “If you chose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

      -Sparling

      • Cory Armbrecht said, on May 13, 2009 at 7:42 pm

        Haha, don’t worry I definitely read you. I can definitely relate on the pain in the ass in philosophy class, and ethics class as well. My class hated me haha.

      • larrycheng said, on May 13, 2009 at 10:06 pm

        Daniel – your philosophy roots are on display! For those of you who don’t know, Daniel was my high school quarterback who routinely threw long bombs to me. We were quite the football connection in high school.

        But, back to the topic at hand. I couldn’t think of all the scenarios in detail so I had to just make some up. You’re totally right on the last scenario. It wasn’t tight leaving too many outs. I wish I had tightened it up because you blew through my scenarios with ease. So in your answers, you show that: (a) you’re willing to make a decision that impacts life, (b) you’ll save your mom over anyone random – how can I argue with that, (c) between multiple random people and one random person, you’ll save the multiple people based on numbers, (d) culpability does come into play to some degree.

        Let me go with one last scenario for you Daniel – and this was in the class. You’re in a hospital, there are 5 people in the emergency room on their deathbed, all needing different organ transplants. One needs a heart, one needs a liver, etc. Anyways, all the organs can be taken from one individual. And there happens to be one healthy unsuspecting individual sitting in the lobby. If you don’t get the organs from that one individual, all 5 will perish. Scenario A: would you take the life of that individual to save the other 5 lives? Scenario B: if your mom was one of the 5 individuals, would you take the life of that one individual to save the 4 + your mom?

  6. larrycheng said, on May 13, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Thanks Cory for trying to keep Daniel honest and make him answer the last scenario. In these types of exercises, it’s always easy to just punt. But, like I said in my last comment, I think Daniel’s right – I left too many loopholes. There’s always next time!

  7. FN said, on May 14, 2009 at 12:39 am

    Hmmmm, excellent post. My thoughts:

    (1) Yes: presumably no one killed.

    (2) No: presumably the railroad worker is 18+ years old and the young child is <10 so w/o additional information preserve life years.

    (3) Yes: same as (2)

    (4) Yes: same as (2) but not b/c of failure to perform work (incompetence is not penalized by death)

    (5) No: w/o more information the expected life years of the two people is likely more than the one person

    (6) No: the child is likely to have more life years than me

    (7) Yes: the expected life years of the laureate (and those affected by her cure) exceed those of me, my family, et al.

  8. larrycheng said, on May 15, 2009 at 9:50 am

    FN: Interesting to throw in the life years as a decision making variable. You seem pretty utilitarian (which may not be a bad thing). Life years, cumulative life years, etc. are driving factors. How would you answer the scenario I laid out to Daniel?

    “Let me go with one last scenario for you Daniel – and this was in the class. You’re in a hospital, there are 5 people in the emergency room on their deathbed, all needing different organ transplants. One needs a heart, one needs a liver, etc. Anyways, all the organs can be taken from one individual. And there happens to be one healthy unsuspecting individual sitting in the lobby. If you don’t get the organs from that one individual, all 5 will perish. Scenario A: would you take the life of that individual to save the other 5 lives? Scenario B: if your mom was one of the 5 individuals, would you take the life of that one individual to save the 4 + your mom?”

    • FN said, on May 15, 2009 at 10:02 am

      It’s true that I’m rarely accused of being overly emotional! ;-)

      The murder-one-person-to-save-5 scenario has an obvious answer: you don’t do it. It’s against the law (in the train scenario you’re absolved of any complicity in how the train and people got there). What’s more it’s impractical, one person can’t just murder a person and do 5 transplants by themself…you’d need a team of doctors and nurses. Lastly, this scenario isn’t just hypothetical because there are thousands of people right this moment on waiting lists for organ transplants and simultaneously there are a lot of “healthy unsuspecting individuals” around them!

      • larrycheng said, on May 18, 2009 at 2:33 pm

        What if there wasn’t clear absolution on complicity in the original train scenarios – would that have changed your answers at all? I have no idea if there would be any culpability no matter what you chose, but I guess if you play back the scenarios and presume that a person would have to answer to the law – that would be interesting as well.

  9. FN said, on May 18, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    @larrycheng I think #7 is the only scenario where culpability could *definitely* change things. Reason being is that the other 6 scenarios all involve a “young child” so how culpable could they be? In #7, I’d change my mind, for example, if the Nobel laureate was criminally responsible for putting me, my family and friends on the track. But then that opens another whole can of worms…does someone doing something great absolve them of guilt for other terrible deeds?

    Bernie Madoff did give a lot of money to charity…


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