Ethical Surrealism

An antic cartoon by Tom Gauld in the latest New Scientist magazine. combining surrealist images with a famous ethical dilemma from the philosophical literature:


From Wikipedia, about the ethical dilemma:

The trolley problem is a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology, involving stylized ethical dilemmas of whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number. Opinions on the ethics of each scenario turn out to be sensitive to details of the story that may seem immaterial to the abstract dilemma. The question of formulating a general principle that can account for the differing moral intuitions in the different variants of the story was dubbed the “trolley problem” in a 1976 philosophy paper by Judith Jarvis Thomson.

The most basic version of the dilemma, known as “Bystander at the Switch” or “Switch”, goes thus:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.

2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

Philippa Foot introduced this genre of decision problems in 1967 as part of an analysis of debates on abortion and the doctrine of double effect. Philosophers Judith Thomson, Frances Kamm, and Peter Unger have also analysed the dilemma extensively. Thomson’s 1976 article initiated the literature on the trolley problem as a subject in its own right. Characteristic of this literature are colorful and increasingly absurd alternative scenarios in which the sacrificed man is instead pushed onto the tracks as a weight to stop the trolley, has his organs harvested to save transplant patients, or is killed in more indirect ways that complicate the chain of causation and responsibility.

… The trolley problem forms the major plot premise of an episode from [the American tv show] The Good Place … It is later referenced and solved in the second season within the context of the universe of the show by Michael (Ted Danson), who states that self-sacrifice is the only solution.

From the show: the character Chidi Anagonye (played by William Jackson Harper) giving a lecture on the trolley problem:

(#2) Note the credit to UCLA philosophy professor Pamela Hieronymi on the blackboard; the show was a fantasy comedy, but it took its philosophy seriously

On this blog, about the show and about another one of its topics: my 10/11/18 posting “Contractualism, the sitcom!” (see  recent work by the Harvard philosopher T.M. Scanlon, especially in his book What We Owe to Each Other).

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