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Making sense of ethical dilemmas

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Human beings are notorious for constructing divisions; we divide ourselves into nations, parties, families … even the most basic elements of computers are a division between ones and zeros. Dividing, grouping, compartmentalizing — whatever you’d like to call it — it’s a uniquely human method of simplifying the world. 

So how does this play into ethics? What ethical dilemmas do, it seems, is to draw on these natural tendencies to seek division between “right” and “wrong.” The (in)famous trolley problem, introduced in 1967 by English philosopher Philippa Foot, is a classic example of this.

Consider the following two versions of the trolley problem:

A runaway trolley is presently moving towards five people, all bound to the track, who will be killed if the trolley continues on its path. You are able to operate a large switch that can divert the trolley onto a different track. The only way to save the lives of the five people is to divert the trolley onto another track that only has one person on it. By diverting the trolley onto the other track, the lone individual will die, but the other five will be saved. 

A runaway trolley is presently moving towards five people, all bound to the track, who will be killed if the trolley continues on its path. You are standing on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five people. This time you are not alone — a very large stranger stands next to you. The only way to save the lives of the five people below is to push the stranger off the footbridge and onto the tracks where his or her large body will stop the trolley. In doing this, you will kill the stranger, but the five people will be saved.

The first is the familiar version we all know and love, while the second introduces a more direct form of action that tends to confuse our moral compasses. 

According to an article published in The Guardian, there are two conflicting schools of moral thought at work within the trolley problem. The utilitarian would argue that quantitatively, killing one to save five must create greater good. Simple mathematics. In contrast, the deontologist would say that the act of killing is wrong, so by taking action (flipping the switch or pushing the stranger), you subject yourself to this amorality. Quantity shouldn’t trump quality.

When faced with the two situations above, people typically side with the utilitarian perspective in the first problem (flip the switch) and the deontological in the second (don’t push the stranger). The Guardian article states that the discrepancy arises from our built-in sense of social morality: you shouldn’t use a person as a means to an end. This illustrates a fundamental aspect of the human psyche: while people initially side with logic in the first version, our feelings win out in the second.

But why should we care? Besides being perfect conversation starters for the occasional light-hearted dinner party, ethical dilemmas like the trolley problem generally do not and never would play out in the real world. Thus, it seems rather unproductive to consider such problems, and yet they remain quite popular and well-known even among children. So what exactly draws people to these highly improbable situations? 

For starters, ethical dilemmas can be unifying. After all, the problems are set up so that it seems like whichever answer you chose is the obvious, “correct” one that any decent human being would select. If you happen to be part of the majority answer group, the effect is akin to a sort of validation of your humanity.

What makes these problems truly fascinating, however, is something I like to call the “tug” effect — while you’re maybe 90% confident that you obviously made the right decision, the potential consequences of making the other decision continue to tug at you. 

In this way, these ethical dilemmas promote cognition and social behavior, encouraging us to bounce ideas off each other and seek general approval and consensus in our choices. In essence, our fascination with the trolley problem is proof that yes, our brains do in fact appreciate the exercise, but as social creatures, we have a tendency to work through difficult questions together.

As we move towards considering more pressing ethical dilemmas surrounding artificial intelligence, genome-editing, and other hot topics like climate change (I had to, I’m sorry), I’m curious to see if these problems will truly promote unity between the many parties involved. Instead of viewing ethical considerations as a waste of time, perhaps they provide the key to sealing the divisions we naturally seek to create.

Contact Carissa Lee at carislee ‘at’ stanford.edu.