A Conversation with Thomas Cathcart; Author of The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem ResizeThe New Idealist had a transatlantic chat with the extremely engaging philosopher Thomas Cathcart, author of The Trolley Problem (or: Would You throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?) ahead of the UK launch of his book which explores ethical conundrums in an refreshingly innovative and humorous manner.

Despite it being 8am (New York time) and having had precisely zero hours sleep Thomas was in fine form…

I understand that you’ve just arrived home having spent the night working at a homeless charity?

Yes actually it’s our church, we put up ten homeless men every night.

Can you outline the concept of The Trolley Problem to our readers?

Sure. Actually, the original Trolley Problem was dreamed up by a woman philosopher at Oxford in 1969 and then an American woman philosopher named Judith Jarvis Thomson sort of resuscitated this in, I think, 1985 or something like that (A link to the PDF article is here).

But until recently it just sort of slumbered in the philosophy literature and the general public really hadn’t heard about it and then, all of a sudden, there was a lecture series at Harvard that was broadcast by PBS and in the first lecture they talked about the Trolley Problem and it suddenly went viral. And now 4.4 million people have computed on the website.

Philippa Foot just died recently, you probably know that, she was in her nineties. So, I don’t know if she was aware at the end of how popular her Trolley problem had become or not.

Actually, this is a slight variation on the original Trolley Problem but it’s the version that’s, sort of, best known now. There’s a trolley; an out of control tram, as you guys say, coming down the track. And you see that if it just keeps going on the main track it’s going to hit and kill five people on the track, who for some reason can’t get off the track.

Some people say there’s a wall on either side of the track. Some people say they’re tied to the track. But for whatever reason, they can’t get off the track. So you think “oh my god, these people are going to be wiped out”. You’re standing beside the track and you see this about to happen.

But you also see there’s a switch in front of you and that if you pull that switch, you see that you can divert the trolley onto a side track, where unfortunately there’s one person, who can’t get off the track either.

So, the question is: would you, should you, pull the switch?

In the book, your take on the problem explores a sort of fictional, ethical trial in the Court of Public Opinion in which readers are members of the jury. Your book has already launched in the US, is that correct?

It is, yes. I think it’s about to be launched over there. Is that true or not?

That’s right, it’s out next week. Have you had any feedback yet which tells you which way readers turn on the issue?

I have not had that kind of feedback, although there’s been a lot of research done on the Trolley Problem now because the psychologists got interested a few years ago. And there’s actually a website, I think it’s called moralsense.com or .org, I’m not sure. If you google the Moral Sense Test it’ll come up (we think he means http://moral.wjh.harvard.edu/).

Visitors to the site can vote and, at least in the initial launching of the thing, I think 89 per cent said that they would throw the switch. Better to kill one person than to kill five.

The other 11 per cent said no, I don’t know. That’s playing God and who am I to decide whether this one life is something that should be sacrificed even though it’ll save five other people? And some people say if we make those kinds of decisions, we’re really kind of going beyond our moral authority and impinging on divine mandate to run the world. So, a lot of people, 11 per cent, a lot of guests, 11 per cent, say they would not throw the switch.

I think that, in reality, the 89 per cent that said that they would, when actually presented; it might be easy to answer that on the internet, but when actually presented in reality with a physical switch I’m sure that some people might just not do anything at all, in reality.

Yeah, that’s what I think too (laughs). Many of us, including me, would just dither about it until it was too late. Yeah, that’s right, yeah. Bit of an artificial thing. What’s interesting though is that there are a lot of variations on the Trolley Problem, and one of them says well, OK, all of you people who said that it’s better to lose one life than five, try this scenario.

This time there’s a footbridge over the track. You see the tram coming. There isn’t any switch, there isn’t any siding. So you think “how can I save the five people?” So you think “well maybe if I dropped a heavy enough object in front of the tram it would stop it and save the five people”. So you look around at the bridge for heavy objects and then you notice that you’re stood next to a heavyset man. And so… Better to sacrifice one to save five? People usually react differently to that scenario.

Hence the title. So, we’ll come back to that title in a moment but you majored in philosophy at Harvard.

I did.

And then you had an interesting career as a Probation Officer, working with street gangs in Chicago, before managing a hospital. Both of these roles are sort of stacked with ethical dilemmas so what was the toughest dilemma that you faced?

You know, there are always questions about end-of-life care. I was a hospital administrator just at the time that so-called advance directives came on board, where people were asked to decide in advance what they would like done if they were unable to make decisions for themselves.

Do they want every possible measure taken or would they rather not be put on a ventilator if there was no hope for their recovery? Those kinds of issues.

Before those got sorted out, those were very cloudy and hospitals used to wrestle mightily with them because, on the one hand, you didn’t want to make that kind of decision for a person himself, or herself. On the other hand you didn’t want to sort of lead them into making a decision they weren’t comfortable with.

There were questions about the role of the family. There were questions about who was the decision-maker if the person was mentally incompetent to make their own decisions. Very, very hazy and now, through a lot of hard ethical work, they’ve now become clearer. They’re never crystal clear, but they’re considerably clearer than they were. So, in healthcare I’d say those were the big ethical questions when I was a hospital administrator.

Your previous book (Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between) explores life, death and the afterlife.

Yes, it does.

And your online bio references you dropping out of various divinity schools.

Also true.

So what made you drop out?

Well, initially, when I went to the longest stint, I was right out of college and I felt that I wanted to be a minister. So I went off to the University of Chicago to the divinity school. At the end of the first year I thought no, I don’t think that ministry is really for me.

And so I thought, well OK, I’ll continue seminary and I’ll get a masters and possibly a doctorate and then I will teach in a seminary. But then, in second year, that didn’t sound that appealing to me either. And so that’s when I basically dropped out.

But it’s always been an interest of mine. And so every once in a while I’ll go back and I’ll take a course or two, not with professional aspirations but just for the fun of it I guess and because of interest. It’s putting a little too fine an edge on it to say I dropped in and out of various divinity schools. But in fact I guess I have.

This is quite a big question, this next one. What do you think is the largest moral dilemma facing society today?

Oh boy, there are a bunch of them I think. The use of drones in warfare – we’re moving toward a much more mechanised idea of warfare. In fact the prime question, clearly, is related to the Trolley Problem.

Warfare always involves, or almost always involves, the killing of innocent people. And so, all the Trolley issues are there in high relief. But also, there’s a psychological difference I think.

And that is, and again this has its analogue in the Trolley Problem, one of the follow-up questions they ask to people who respond to the footbridge scenario, people who say I would not throw the man off the bridge and some people say that’s because of a physical involvement, it’s because I have to put my hands on the guy, it’s not like the switch.

So there is this question for these people: suppose the heavyset guy is standing on the tram door and all you have to do is push a button and he falls onto the track? More people say yes, I would do that.

Not everybody but more people say yes, they would do that, than say they would push him off. So obviously, this has its repercussions in drone warfare too. Has it become too easy to wage warfare? If you’re not looking your enemy in the eye are we going to become more callous about doing widespread damage to other human beings?

Way back in the days of the Cold War, there were some people who seriously stated that the button that would launch nuclear weapons should be implanted in somebody’s body, so that the President of the United States…, in order to launch nuclear weapons, would have to physically kill to get the button.

And the idea was, I think this was out forward as a serious proposal, that it’s easy to push a button. Frankly more difficult actually to kill one person with your bare hands than to wipe out an entire country with nuclear weapons. Sounds crazy, but there it is. So that’s one big issue I think.

It goes back to what I was saying before about that disconnect, between people answering questions online and what they would actually do when faced, as you said, when you have to actually look into the eyes of someone in reality and people find it a lot harder to actually take action if they have to directly interact with someone, as opposed to just pushing a button.

A lot of people sort of express that when they’re faced with the Trolley Problem. They say who is this guy? Is he a child molester? Is he my old Uncle George? Those kinds of things down to the really personal aspects of looking someone in the eye…

We couldn’t really end this interview without asking you;  Would You Throw The Fat Guy Off  The Bridge?

I think, like most people, I think I would pull the switch, I don’t think I would throw the fat guy off the bridge. And like most people, on most days, I’m not really sure why; it just feels different. On some of my clearer days I actually think I do have a reason why I would do one and not the other but, most of the time, it just feels wrong in my gut.

And that’s what most people say actually. Most people say they would pull the switch, most people say they wouldn’t push the fat man and most people say I can’t really tell you exactly why, I just feel it in my gut.

The Trolley Problem (or: Would You throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?) by Thomas Cathcart is out now.

Please note: This article was originally published on The New Idealist original site in November 2013.

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