On My Academic Tutelage

Not getting a job, that's what.

I studied Philosophy in college.  Philosophy is what you study when you’ve decided that no other discipline really interests you enough to pretend to devote four years of your life to.  Philosophy is much more interesting than, say:  economics, political science, the rest of the humanities, all sciences except for physics, and everything else under the sun.

Oh, except math.  Philosophy, math, and physics all tie.

But, hell.  My interests in math and physics are mainly philosophical, anyway.  (I’m pretty into string theory and/or the multiverse at the moment.  Even though the former is untestable for the foreseeable future.  Nerd alert.)  I suppose I’m just a would-be philosopher who didn’t go to grad school and is therefore slowly forgetting the details.  And in philosophy, that’s blasphemy because the details are important, damn it.  Which means what have you…I’m losing it.

Anyhow.  Here’s a poll (via) taken of one thousand or so philosophers (academics and grad students) on their various opinions on various hot-button issues in philosophy.  And here’s my favorite question and answer:

Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don’t switch?

Accept or lean toward: switch 635 / 931 (68.2%)
Other 225 / 931 (24.1%)
Accept or lean toward: don’t switch 71 / 931 (7.6%)

The “trolley problem” in question goes something like this:  you’re at a train switch, for no apparent reason, when all of a sudden a train comes barreling wildly down the tracks.  On one of the tracks, the one that the train is currently barreling down, there are five people who cannot possibly get out of the way.  (I forget why.  Maybe they’re tied up?  Anybody?)  Moving on.  So five people are on track maybe-tied-up and about to get smooshed, and you’re at a train switch.  And you, the reader, are all like, “Well, shit, dummy:  pull the switch!”  Aha!  Tricked you!  The problem is, there’s a person on the other track, too.  Equally tied up.  Or whatever.

So what do you do?

Do you pull the switch and “actively” kill one person to save the five?  Or do you leave it alone, save one, and “passively” let five people die?

It’s my favorite question-and-answer because 24.1% of philosophers never get around to making a decision–or decide instead that there is an alternative to the options on the table.  In the meantime, the train has run over those people.

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4 responses to “On My Academic Tutelage

  1. The Bosshole can lick my chode...

    I like that question, too… mostly ’cause someone has to eat the train. The way I figure it, if you let it take out the group of five, you increase your odds of squashing some banker-prick or holocaust-denier… maybe a douche like the egg-chucker or Todd-the-townie. What if the lone person tied to the tracks was Mother Teresa or Angelina Jolie? Then you’d feel like real shit. Not that I’d ever advocate for the killing of any human being (Life is sacred, right Todd?), but if someone has to die…

  2. But here, aha. You’ve spent a minute or two typing a reply, a justification for your inaction. In actual fact, you’d let the five die. Even if you pretended you were *really* doing something else, killing a holocaust denier, e.g. But what if there were four Mother Teresas and a holocaust denier on one track, and Joe The Plumber on another? Or four Joe The Plumbers and a Mother Teresa on one track and a holocaust denier on the other? The moral calculus becomes blurry. We lose our focus.

    I say save the five. The odds are in your favor. And fuck everyone who says otherwise.

    I need a drink.

  3. The Bosshole can lick my chode...

    Alright, Tom. I can see you won’t accept my glib reply. Why must you insist on having a genuine discussion? Have it your way…

    I wonder, if this were presented as part of a public poll (as opposed to part of an elitist philosopher poll) what kind of results we might find. After all, if this were a real scenario, it would be answered by some jerk-off that just happened to be passing by the video monitor at the right time, right? Or maybe by an employee of the transportation company (in which case, I’m sure there is a policy in place to save the five, because in a bureaucracy it’s all about the numbers).

    Which is what I think it would come down to, for most Americans anyway. We have come up in a culture of “more-is-better,” and we seldom pause to question that idea. It’s a reflex now. Why is Wal-Mart so successful? Because we can get it cheap? Well, yes.. in part. But more importantly, we can get MORE shit for our money… that’s the secret. Costco anyone?

    If the Joe the plumber can say, “I caused the death of one person, but saved five” he’s a hero based on the math alone. Maybe he’ll stop to consider the morality or justice of his decision… but I kinda think that he (and those that judge him) will tend to reason it out in a way that justifies the decision that he’s already made.

    If Joe chooses the one, he’ll be forced to do a lot of explaining. Why is this ONE life as valuable as those other five? There is no answer that anyone will find acceptable, unless Joe can convince people that the one is the messiah (or a pregnant woman?). In the end, saving the five is a selfish decision. It’s a lot less work when you do what anyone else would do.

    Is that right? Fuck, I lost my train of thought.

    So anyway, yeah… the problem with the question is that the odds are against there being a trained philosopher handy if this problem should pop up during the afternoon commute.

    Hope all is well out East.
    Happy Christmas, Tom, et al.

  4. I think the point, though, IS ultimately a mathematical one, not a philosophical one. In other words, I resoundingly agree with the intuitive utilitarian response, which is to save the five over the one.

    Even to actively kill the one to save the five–that’s cool. I say that because one important aspect of the hypothetical is that you know nothing about the individuals on the tracks other than their numbers. Five v. one. If the one person tied up alone is the second coming of the Messiah–well, shoot. He or she’s still gonna die, as far as I’m concerned. But that’s not something that the question asks you to consider. In fact, considering it doesn’t help matters. I mean, sure, we can imagine scenarios in which saving one Mother Teresa is a better choice than saving five Hitlers, but that thought experiment ultimately obscures more than it clarifies. We’re talking about an impossibly impossible scenario–this shit is never going to happen to anyone except for in an Intro to Ethics class. At the end of the day, the question is, “What do our intuitions say? And are they right?”

    So I reiterate, my intuitions say save the five. You can at the very least expect your impact on humanity as a whole to be greater (assuming that the five’s social network is larger than the one’s–assuming, that is, that five dead people would be more missed than one), and that’s a start.

    What I’m trying to say: I agree with Joe the Plumber, et al. Save the five. Because there’re more of them.

    It’s that simple.

    That said, I think that this is one of those bullshit ethical questions that’s not really instructive. That’s partly why I highlighted it (oh, and I hate ethics, also, btw, wtf, lol, etc). But, truly this is a matter of, as your grandmother might say, doing you best. There’s no right answer here. You do what you can, and no matter what, most people are going to agree that you were dealt a shit hand and had to play it out. Sometimes you can’t feel bad about things beyond your control.

    Okay, enough, and sans conclusion–I’m going to bed. Hope all is well out west, out east. For everybody. Merry Jesus-Getting-Born-Out-Of-Wedlock-Day.

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