The Ethicist: Would You Kill the Fat Man?

Over the last few columns, I have been making the case that ethics is as much a work of the imagination as it is of the intellect — we need to be able to imagine what a better world might look like before we can identify ways that might allow us to bring that world into being.  And we must consider what form a worse world might take, so that we can prevent it from becoming reality.

But the imaginative work that goes into ethical thought is an inherent part of philosophy more generally. Philosophers don’t simply look at the world and then take it for granted, assuming that what lies on the surface is all there is to see. Rather, they try to get at the underlying structures of our thought to identify ways in which we might question the things we usually take for granted, so that we can see more clearly what we believe and why. This is a difficult and demanding process, both intellectually and emotionally. It is difficult intellectually, because what we are asking thought to do is reflect upon itself, and its own workings; and it is difficult emotionally, because it requires us to question even our deepest and most important beliefs, and when we see them more clearly, we may discover that we have to give at least some of them up.

So, how do we go about the process of coming to see our thoughts more clearly? One of the most important tools used by philosophers is the thought experiment. Thought experiments are exactly what the name suggests: we test some part of our thinking by constructing an imaginary scenario, one which presents us with a puzzle, which we can then use to explore what we think and why.


Runaway trolley

I want to share a simple thought experiment commonly used by ethicists with the readers of The Cape Breton Spectator, and then show how it can help us think more clearly about some of the pressing issues facing us today. (This particular thought experiment was first proposed by Phillipa Foot, then refined by Judith Jarvis Thompson, and then further adapted by other philosophers). The great thing about thought experiments is that they are something which all of us can do for ourselves, so I encourage readers of this column to enter wholeheartedly into the game, and test your own judgments through this mechanism.

Imagine that you are standing beside a track, when you see an out-of-control trolley – a streetcar – hurtling towards you. Ahead of the trolley lie five people who, oddly enough, have been tied to the track. As you watch the runaway trolley zoom towards the helpless victims, you suddenly notice that you are standing next to a signal switch. If you pull it, the trolley will be diverted down a side-track, where it will hit one person who is also tied to the track. If you do nothing, five people will die. If you flip the switch, only one person will be killed. What should you do? (Reader, please answer this question for yourself, before reading on).

Now imagine that you are standing on a footbridge that crosses above the trolley track. You see another trolley hurtling towards five people tied to the track. This time, there is no convenient switch that you can pull to divert the trolley. However, as you again watch in horror, you suddenly realize that standing next to you on the bridge is a very large man: if he were to fall onto the track in front of the trolley, his bulk is substantial enough that it would stop the trolley, although the fat man would undoubtedly be killed in the process. You could consider sacrificing yourself by jumping onto the tracks in front of trolley, but, because you are small and slender, you would be killed, and the trolley would still run over the five people, killing them all. Should you push the fat man? Would you push the fat man? (Again, I ask readers to try to answer these questions honestly before reading on).

Finally, in a further variation on the thought experiment, imagine that you are a physician who specializes in organ transplantation. You have five patients who need organs, who will all die in the near future if no organs become available. In an amazing coincidence, all are good tissue matches for one another, and all need different organs, so if you could just find one suitable donor, the lives of all your patients could be saved. You are considering what you should do, when you observe that a healthy young hitchhiker who happens to be passing through your town and came to your hospital to get treated for an infected wound in his leg (which necessitated a blood test before an appropriate antibiotic was identified) is a perfect match for your patients. Would it be wrong to inject him with an incapacitating substance while pretending to treat his wound, then harvest his organs in order to save the lives of your five patients? (Again, dear reader, think about how you would answer this question, and why).



These variations on the trolley problem scenarios (Commonly called “Spur,” “Fat Man,” and “Transplant”) are designed to test our moral intuitions, and when philosophers have tested them out on people, they have discovered something interesting: while most people say that it would be right to flip the switch, they also almost invariably agree that it would be wrong to push the fat man and wrong to kill the hitchhiker. (Reader, is this how you answered when you tested these scenarios on yourself?) And this result is interesting, because it shows that our moral thinking is, in an important way, inconsistent: in each case, we are causing the death of one person to save five other lives, so why do most of us think it ok to flip the switch but wrong to kill the fat man and the hitchhiker, when the motivation and the results are exactly the same? Since philosophers believe that inconsistent beliefs reveal a problem in our thinking, they have expended much time and energy trying to find one defensible and coherent principle that will make sense of these inconsistent responses.

What is most important about these scenarios, however, is not just that they offer us an engaging and intriguing way of testing our moral responses, but that they have real-world implications as well. It is clearly the case that flipping a switch which leads to the death of one person feels far more impersonal than laying our hands on someone and causing his death. But how different are these actions, really? If we are uncomfortable causing the deaths of the fat man and the hitchhiker, shouldn’t we feel uncomfortable about flipping the switch as well?


Real world applications

Understood in this way, the scenarios tell us that we cannot be indifferent to the sufferings of others and that, even if we are not directly responsible for their suffering, we may still be complicit in it: for example, the production of coltan, a metallic ore which contains products used in electronic devices, including cell phones, has been associated with human rights violations in many of the places in which it is mined. These human rights violations include the exploitation of workers (including children) who are forced at gunpoint to mine coltan, because the mines are frequently controlled by militia groups, who generate revenue from this valuable natural resource. Are our hands clean when we buy and use our cell phones, because we are not directly responsible for the conditions under which coltan is often produced? Or are we morally accountable, because our purchase and use of these devices is one of the reasons why coltan mining is so lucrative that it has created these working conditions?

Mugisha, a 12 year old working in a coltan mine, Numbi, DR Congo - Copy rights: Carlos Villalon /

Mugisha, a 12-year-old working in a coltan mine, Numbi, DR Congo (Copy rights: Carlos Villalon)

On the other hand, if we think, instead, that we can make our ethical thinking consistent by asserting that what matters most is that more people be saved, then we should be happy not only to flip the switch, but also to fling the fat man to his death and to treat the young hitchhiker as nothing more than a source of valuable organs. But if this is the way that we go, then we have to be equally consistent when we take what we have learned from this thought experiment and apply it to the “real world”: what would it mean to take seriously the idea that we should save as many lives as we can? At the very least, many of the things that are currently happening in the world today, if we apply this standard, are clearly wrong: we should be opening our doors to refugees from war-torn lands who are likely to die if they remain where they are; we would have to take seriously the fact that many of the world’s poor still die of preventable causes, like unclean drinking water; and we would have to challenge the existence and activities of industries (including some in Canada) that sell arms to repressive regimes and warlords.

What is interesting about this thought experiment then, is that, whichever way we turn, we cannot get off the hook: either our ethical thinking is inconsistent (which philosophers believe indicates a problem), or we can achieve consistency only at a high cost to our moral intuitions, those instinctive responses we make to the trolley problem scenarios. So we must either think harder (can we find a plausible principle which makes sense of these inconsistent responses?), or we must take seriously the lesson that these scenarios teach us, namely, that we cannot evade moral responsibility both for the things we do and the things that we fail to do.

In my next column, I will explore the way in which the zombie apocalypse we have already considered as an allegory can also be understood as a thought experiment, and the uncomfortable truths that it can teach.

Featured image: Still from teachphilosophy video, via YouTube


Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.




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