Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Wouldn't Murder the Fat Man

I really hate the thought experiment about the fat man and the trolley. I hate it so much I don't even want to recount it, but I guess if I want to write about it, I probably should. You're standing on a bridge next to a very fat man. You see a runaway trolley careening toward five people. They are too far away to hear you, so you can't yell a warning to them. Apparently, you're a total sicko, so it dawns on you that the only thing to do is push the man next to you off the bridge, derailing the trolley. You'll end his life, but save five others. Do you do it?

I get it. You're supposed to ask yourself why it would bother you more to directly kill one person than to stand passively by while five people die. Still, I can't stand the way it's framed. There's always an unspoken implication that it's just cowardice stopping you from killing that guy you don't know.

The question no one seems to ask is, if you're so noble, why don't you throw yourself in front of the trolley? If you aren't willing to do that, why would there be anything laudable about deciding the guy next to you should?

Of course, this is why the man next to you is fat. You, presumably, are not, so you wouldn't derail the train. Plus, what's he doing being obese, anyway? Does he really have any right to just stand there, being fat, while five thin people die? I find the physics of this questionable. You don't have time to calculate trajectory of the projectile, so it's a crapshoot.

BRIEF HOUSE OF CARDS SPOILER NESTED IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.

However, I am overweight, although presumably not as morbidly obese as the man next to me. Being short and female, it's likely I do weigh considerably less than he does, and won't do as good a job of derailing the train as he would. But this comes with its own set of challenges - I won't have an easy time pushing him off the bridge. I certainly can't do it in one quick movement, like SPOILER ALERT Frank Underwood pushing Zoe Barnes in front of a subway. He'll probably notice and object, an altercation will ensue, and best case scenario, I'll be thrown off the bridge. This would be the most desirable outcome, as not only would one person would be sacrificed in order to save five, but the guy who pushed me off the bridge could honestly say he acted in self-defense, relieving both him and the rest of society from wrestling with any sort of moral dilemma. He was attacked by a madwoman, accidentally pushed her off the bridge, and - serendipity! - managed to derail a trolley that was about to kill five innocent people.

Failing that, maybe we'll wrestle and we'll both fall, upping the chances of a successful derailment. Two people die instead of one, but five are saved, so we're still ahead by three. The decision maker is dead, and the odds of this becoming a decision people have to make on a regular basis are quite slim, so there's no need for anyone to worry about whether or not it was right.

Really, try explaining your decision to push the person next to you off a bridge, even if it did save five lives. It will not be well received. How do you know the fat man isn't the only surgeon in the world who knows how to perform a life-saving procedure that saves five people every day? Because if he is, I'm afraid you'll have egg on your face.

So I think the answer is clear. If you're too yellow-bellied to throw yourself in front of a train, provoke someone else into doing it. It's the only justifiable solution.

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