The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum

The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum

Thomas Cathcart

Language: English

Pages: 144

ISBN: 076117513X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


A trolley is careering out of control. Up ahead are five workers; on a spur to the right stands a lone individual. You, a bystander, happen to be standing next to a switch that could divert the trolley, which would save the five, but sacrifice the one―do you pull it? Or say you’re watching from an overpass. The only way to save the workers is to drop a heavy object in the trolley’s path. And you’re standing next to a really fat man….

This ethical conundrum―based on British philosopher Philippa Foot’s 1967 thought experiment―has inspired decades of lively argument around the world. Now Thomas Cathcart, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, brings his sharp intelligence, quirky humor, and gift for popularizing serious ideas to “the trolley problem.” Framing the issue as a possible crime that is to be tried in the Court of Public Opinion, Cathcart explores philosophy and ethics, intuition and logic. Along the way he makes connections to the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, Kant’s limits of reason, St. Thomas Aquinas’s fascinating Principle of Double Effect, and more.

Read with an open mind, this provocative book will challenge your deepest held notions of right and wrong. Would you divert the trolley? Kill one to save five? Would you throw the fat man off the bridge?

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analogy may fail to be convincing is that the two things being compared—the eyeball and the iPhone—may in fact be persuasively similar in one or more respects, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two things are also similar in another respect: in this case, how they came into being. Just because the iPhone was created by Apple doesn’t mean the eyeball didn’t develop in a completely different way: for example, over millions of years through random mutation and natural selection. What caused

certain conditions it may be permissible to perform a good act that has a bad consequence, even one that we would ordinarily be obligated to avoid. And so, while killing another person is generally prohibited, killing in self-defense is sometimes permissible. Under certain conditions it may be permissible to perform a good act that has a bad consequence, even one that we would ordinarily be obligated to avoid. St. Thomas posits that saving one’s own life is generally a good thing,

point is that looking at the problem as a matter of abstract morality may come less immediately to mind for women than it does for men. Maybe men are more likely to see the question as sort of a math problem, where the people are sort of interchangeable parts, and women are more likely to see the question as a story—in which real people interact with real people. Wow, another interesting and thoughtful perspective. It sounds like you may have read about Carol Gilligan’s work in the 1980s,

diverting a danger that already exists versus creating a new one. Liz, you think it’s about using personal force. You’re all making this way too complicated. Daphne’s action didn’t scare most people until the prosecutor decided to try to scare them. Liz: How so? Alistair: Both Daphne’s innocence and the guilt of the guy who pushed the fat fellow to his death simply stem from old Jerry Bentham’s principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Period. The D.A. in the

analysis in the world is really just our rationalizing of our moral intuitions. In this view, there would seem to be little value—other than perhaps entertainment—in thinking about the basis of the moral distinctions we draw, such as the difference most feel between throwing a switch and throwing a man. We may claim to “know” in some visceral way that the one is permissible and the other is not, and we may therefore feel that any deliberation or articulation is merely rationalization. Much

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