THE BLOG
05/06/2014 05:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Trolleyology in Oklahoma

2014-05-05-CanalMagazineStreetcarsPrytaniaAnnunciation.jpg

Phiippa Foot was an Oxford philosopher, who just happened to be the granddaughter of Grover Cleveland. She was famous for the Trolley Problem, a conundrum of moral philosophy. In short five people are tied to a train track. If you simply divert the train to another track only one person will be killed. There is also the attendant Footbridge Problem whereby a fat man is standing on a footbridge. If you push him onto the tracks, his heft will stall the train. What's interesting is that the question is both utilitarian and moral. Most people would say it's always better to save five rather than one. Immanuel Kant might not have agreed since he believed that there was a categorical imperative which defined what was right or wrong.

In a review of Would You Kill the Fat Man:? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us About Right and Wrong by David Edmonds ( "How Do We Know What's Moral?" The New York Review of Books, 4/24/14), Cass R. Sunstein uses the term "trolleyology" to categorize for these kinds of ruminations. But even though Sunstein employs trolleyological thinking when he remarks, "imagine that capital punishment actually deters murder, so that with every execution, we can save two innocent lives, or three, or a dozen," the recent botched execution of Clayton D. Lockett in Oklahoma gives pause to those who would go with a strictly utilitarian view. It's something that was also dramatized in Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiment at Yale. It might sound like it's easy to push a fat man off a bridge to save five others, but when you are the one who has to do it, you will or won't feel some degree of hesitation. Another Yale researcher, Joshua Greene has recently complicated the ethical aspects of the problem by performing brain scans of people as they contemplate it, as a way of testing the emotions that underline a simply rational choice ("Why Can't We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality," Robert Wright, The Atlantic, 10/29/14).

Usually the Trolley problem is illustrated without any consideration of the character of those who would or would not be saved. However, by adding this consideration as Sunstein does in his essay/review, trolleyology can be used as an argument for or against capital punishment. Ostensibly you execute a murderer to send a message and prevent further murders. But as is evident in the recent case of the Lockett execution, it's not so simple. Once you open up the doors of vengeance and say that the ends justify the means, you unleash the prospect of a Pandora's Box of dehumanizing action, amongst them tortures like the waterboarding of alleged suspects. You take an action predicated on a certain level of expediency. But where does it lead?

Photo: Canal Street, New Orleans, early 20th Century

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}