Not Just Any Fat Man, Not Just Any Trolley

23/365: Trolley wheels
Image by Sarah and Mike …probably via Flickr

Via Twitter, here’s a fascinating article on how variations on the classic “fat man on the trolley tracks” thought experiment produce lead people with different political leanings to different conclusions. Namely: conservatives seem more willing to sacrifice one black man to save a train full of white people, while liberals are more willing to sacrifice a white man to save a train full of black people.

My guess is that both the liberals and the conservatives involved in this experiment would tell you that the race of those involved is morally irrelevant, and been appalled if you suggested that they’re unconsciously weighting the life of a member of one race over the life of someone of a different race, controlling for all other factors. But of course, that’s why thought experiments generally operate at a high level abstraction in the first place; why the fat man is usuallly known only as “the fat man,” not Tyron Payton or Chip Ellsworth III. The idea is to bypass corrupting personal prejudices and get to deeper moral intuitions.

If the liberals and conservatives had focused on the abstract question at the heart of the thought experiment instead of morally irrelevant details, they would not necessarily have making a more moral decision as we judge it, but they would have made one either consistent with their professed moral intuitions, or which caused them to reconsider those intuitions. They also would have learned something useful about their own innate biases.

So while this study didn’t have much in the way of surprises, it did confirm one of my own biases: it demonstrated yet again why I think everyone could benefit from making a serious study of ethical philosophy.

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