Saturday, October 24, 2015

Ends and Means

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Suppose you are down a mine and five people are standing on the track. You see a trolley laden with coal coming down the track, you cannot warn the people, but you can flip a switch that will divert the trolley onto a side line. Unfortunately one person is standing on this line. What should you do (morally, that is).

You have probably heard of this or some similar "thought experiment" in ethics. They are generically called a Trolly Problem after a moral dilemma devised by the late Philippa Foote.

One thing about philosophers is they get to present only one side of the story and do so in any way they like. Setting up a scenario which stipulates that the only possible way to save the five lives is to kill one person at first seems seem unfair so I was tempted to just dismiss the scenario as unrealistic. However, after further thought I decided the Universe really is perverse enough that similar moral dilemmas will arise.

At various times, I tried two basic approaches to solve the dilemma. First was the utilitarian approach. This is an attractive solution because it is simple arithmetic: Five lives are greater than one life. So the utilitarian answer is to divert the train thus killing the one to save five.

The other approach is based on obedience to rules (deontological) and always seemed to devolve to some version of the Doctrine of Double Effect which I first encountered reading Thomas Aquinas in my misspent High School days. To justify an act, there are four criteria which must be met:

  1. The action must be either morally good or morally indifferent.
  2. The bad effect must not be a proximate cause of the good effect.
  3. The intention must be the achieving of only the good effect, with the bad effect being only an unintended side effect.
  4. The good effect must be at least equivalent in importance to the bad effect.

OK, so analyzing the question according to Aquinas:

  1. Pulling the switch is an indifferent act. Check
  2. The killing of the one person is not the proximate cause of the other five surviving. Check
  3. Saving the five is the intent. This is a bit if a push but I give it a check
  4. Arithmetic again: Five lives are greater than one life. Check.

So both approaches yield the same answer. When I understood that, my first inclination was to think "Wow! It must be the correct action!" However, the answer did not seem right to me. I know that a feeling of wrongness does not necessarily translate into an objective wrong but I believe there is value in letting my feelings serve my intellect. Feelings evolved alongside intelligence for a darned good reason -- It helped my ancestors survive and produce the next generation of my ancestors. If emotion and intellect are in disharmony then intellect can be used to sort out the controversy.

There is an unspoken assumption in the Trolley Problem that all six lives are essentially of equal value but that is not necessarily true. I suspect the arithmetic for a God (or a sufficiently advanced AGI) would be a little different. A God will have information about the people involved which can affect the decision. Perhaps the one is a brilliant medical doctor and the five are murders and rapists. Would that change the moral balance? If it does then some lives are less valuable than others and both of the above approaches are severely crippled.

If there was a God (or AGI) lacking any innate tendency to be corrupted by power, it could be right for She/He/It to deliberately kill the one innocent person to save the other five. However, human being are not Gods with perfect knowledge nor are we immune to the temptations of power.

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