Clang goes the Trolley

Let’s play a game.  Trolleyology.  It comes in three distinct flavors, getting more challenging and interesting as we move up the levels.  It is generally a British game and based on British definitions of trolley, although the game transports to the Americas quite well.

[Definition background.  What Americans call a “shopping cart” the British often call a trolley.  Also, what American might call a “street car” Brits call a trolley.]

[Game requirements: Be honest and try to answer all the questions.  There are no wrong answers.]

Level 1, Trolleyology.  Question: have you ever popped into a grocery store so you could quickly get one or two things, and emerged 30 or 40 minutes later with a trolley full of product you didn’t originally intend on buying?  Or even with two or three extra items?

When you enter a grocery store, you are playing Level 1 trolleyology. Most grocery stores are set up so that common items are in the back, or in remote corners. Need some milk? Back of the store. Loaf of bread or dozen eggs?, often at remote and opposite corners.

Now you are in Trolleyology Level 1.  Do you have preferred aisles or routes you take to get to these items, or between, say, bakery and dairy?  Think a moment.  Do you prefer the soft drink aisle?  The baking goods?  Stationary?  Home cleaning products, beer and wine?… Seasonal merchandise?

Now take a moment and think about what your answers might say about you.

See, trolleyology isn’t that difficult or stressful.  You’ve answered the questions and ruminated on what they might say about you.  You’ve progressed to Trolleyology, Level 2.

Level 2, Trolleyology.  Think again about your experiences in grocery stores, or department stores, where people are pushing around trolleys full of merchandise. Have you ever peered — perhaps casually, perhaps with feigned casualness — into someone’s cart and taken note of what they are about to buy? And then, started passing judgment on them, their lifestyle and their value system?

Last night for example, while failing Level 1, I was cruising through the front end of the store when I passed a 20-something fellow in baggy droopy jeans.  He stopped in front me — causing me to have to avoid him — to grab a package of candy bars.  Passing him, I noticed his cart had three 12-packs of Pepsi soda and a carton of Marlboro cigarettes.  I couldn’t help from making some quick judgments about “droopy drawers”, how his present and future will turn out.  I could not help it anymore than I could help myself from quickly peering into his cart, or admiring a beautiful sunset.

We all lie on the”nosy and judgmental” scale somewhere.  We want to know things about others, and we all feel some urge to judge, even though we know it’s not really “right.” Even if it’s just to feel better about ourselves.

Thank you for playing Tolleyology, Levels 1 & 2.  These shopping versions  provide  little windows to our brains and our souls. The gist here has been get us to realize that we are all (at least a little bit) nosy, judgmental and subject to manipulation.  It’s OK, we’re only human.

Trolleyology Level 3.  You are standing on a pedestrian bridge over a street car rail line.  You are standing next to a very large fat man.  He is a complete stranger to you.

Your attention is drawn to a run-away trolley coming toward you … about to pass underneath you and the strange very large fat man in a few moments.  You also know that a hundred yards (or 90 meters) down the line there is another man — completely unaware of the run-away trolley — who is performing some maintenance work on the rail line.

If the run-away trolley continues –a single car, small and unoccupied — it will surely kill the worker.  Yet it is small enough that the body of the strange very large fat man would stop the trolley.

Trolleyology Level 3 Question.  Do you push the very large fat man off the bridge and onto the rail — to stop the trolley and save the worker?  No matter what you do — or don’t do — your actions will be nonpunishable   There are no wrong answers.  Not answering is disqualifying.

Take a moment.  Push the fat man to his death.  Yes, or no?

If you answer “yes”, you can skp to the “skip to here” paragraph”  below.  If you answered “yes”, outside this essay, the game changes the question.  What if the worker would only be maimed — losing a limb — instead of being killed? Would you still push the strange very large fat man?  The idea is to find where your “yes” becomes a “no”.

If you originally answered “no, I would not push the fat man” you can perhaps support your answer with logic such as

  • Someone is going to die.  Who am I to decide which one?
  • This whole thing happened without me until now.  Why should I get involved now?
  • Who am I to play God?

Here again, the game changes questions again.  Would you still answer “no” if 3 workers would die?  Five? 100?  What if one of the workers were you spouse, child, or parent?  What if one thousand — or one million — would die from the run-away trolley car?

The (admittedly very uncomfortable) idea of the game is to determine the threshold at which the answer is barely — just barely — “yes, I would push a total stranger off the bridge to almost certain death in order to spare _____ *(fill in the blank).

If there is no threshold for you (i.e. NO, there is no circumstance under which you push him), then you are dismissed from further participation.  Many would dismiss you as heartless, others as stridently beholden and shackled by principals, or lack thereof. You would choose not to get engaged to save one hundred, one thousand or one million. No matter how many 8 year-olds were killed or limbs were to be lost.  In a sense, you win.  But the rest of us must struggle on.

[Skip to here if you answered YES originally]

So here you are.  There is some threshold, no matter how uncomfortable, at which you push the fat man off the bridge. “Gosh darn it, I don’t feel good about it, but yes I think at some point I’d have to push him off the bridge.” Good, thanks for being honest.

We now turn to the terrorist acts in Boston.  Two brothers, Chechan immigrants, set off bombs in a crowd at the Boston Marathon, killing three and horribly injuring 180, leading to many limb amputations.  Later, a security officer was fatally shot; and a police officer was gravely shot as well.

Now, suppose — just suppose that instead of a strange very large fat man — you have a person of interest who has information about such a horrible terrorist attack about to occur. You can choose to help avert this killing and maiming. If there is a threshold where, “yes, you would push the man off the bridge”, then we have to ask you the corollary: what is the threshold where “enhanced interrogation techniques” are appropriate? Could we deprive someone of sleep, or a meal, or a few moments of breathing?

Going a bit further, one of the Boston Bombing Terrorists has been caught alive.  He may well have knowledge of pending future attacks, possibly even more horrific.  He was seen on video placing his bomb-laden backpack in front of an 8-year old boy … who would soon die … and then walking away.  [We Americans are so naive.  If this were to happen in Israel, the crowd would immediately start shouting “Unattended Package!” and tackle his sorry skinny ass.] He may well be attached to cells of fanatical terrorists who have provided him inspiration and training.  Cells of terrorists who will act again.  Since you have read this far in the column, there is a point at which you would push the fat man off the bridge.  Is there not, then, a point at which you would go beyond Miranda Rights and try to save death, mayhem, maiming and suffering for untold many others?

Many people are already clammering for the death penalty for young Mr. Tsarnaev. Some water cooler conversation swirled around wishes for a slow, painful death.

The end of Trolleyology, Level 3.  If you would kill the fat man, you must also address the question when and how to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get information that could save hundreds, thousands, even millions from death, maiming and suffering.

Thanks for playing all three levels of Trolleyology.

Joe Girard (c) 2013



2 thoughts on “Clang goes the Trolley”

  1. Steve Rolfe

    This is an old issue parable and an old issue. It is well discussed in many literature sources. Read Alan Derschwitz’s. He has endorsed torture for situations where timely information could avoid loss of lives.

    The fact is that this kind of situation almost never occurs in our ordinary lives. Ask yourself have you ever experienced a situation like this? Do you know someone who has? Have you every heard from a credible source of a situation like this? I haven’t in my 62 years on earth.

    But, it does occur often in times of war, or perhaps one can say it is the essential issue of war. We send people into battle knowing they will be killed or maimed all the time in an effort for some higher goal.

    On the question of enhanced interogation, torture by its real name, its purpose was never to get people to tell the truth only to punish and get people to say what the torturer wanted them to say. What we know of enhanced interrogation is that it provided no useful information, but techniques that do not include torture actual did provide a lot of useful information.

    The parable of the fat man is a falacy. It make for a clever party trick and cover for committing atrocities, but it doesn’t lead to useful results.

    1. Joe Post Author

      Oh Steve, you are so smart. What a dope I am. Of course enhanced techniques don’t work. John McCain was clearly lying when he said in his autobiography that he’d reached his breaking point and gave in.
      And of course hardly anyone ever faces such a moral dilemma. I didn’t think of it myself (and I hardly think it reaches the standard for “parable”), I merely shared it in the context of current events. It’s easy and pompous to sit on the sidelines and say what should or should not be done with high principles and morals. The idea of “the game” is to invite people off their moral thrones of black/whit and participate in the messiness of real life and gray fuzzy lines.
      An intellectual comment would have offered a clever replacement game or dilemma instead of taking pot shots.
      But I’m a dope.

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