A YouTuber has recreated the ‘trolley problem’ in real life

A YouTuber has recreated the Trolley Problem, the moral philosophy riddle that asks whether it is morally justified to kill one person to save five.

The original problem was posed by philosopher Philippa Foot and later popularized in an article by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson.

“Suppose you are the driver of a trolley. The trolley makes a turn and in front of you five railway workers come into view, who have been repairing the track. The track at that point goes through a bit of a valley and the sides are steep, so you have to stopping the trolley if you want to prevent the five men from running down. You hit the brakes, but unfortunately they don’t work. Now suddenly you see a trail leading to the right,” Jarvis Thompson set out in a paper.

‘You can turn the cart on it and save the five men on the straight track ahead. Unfortunately, Mrs. Foot has ensured that there is one track worker on that spur. He can no longer get off the track in time. than the five can, so you will kill him if you turn the trolley against him. Is it morally permissible for you to turn the trolley? Everyone I’ve presented this hypothetical case to says, “Yes, it is.”

When asked in the abstract, the majority of people will say that it is morally permissible to pull the lever and kill one person to save five. Toddlers, meanwhile, add just one person to the stack of five and let the train do its work.

But let’s be honest, the problem is quite abstract. Make it less abstract, like an update where you have to push someone off a bridge to slow the train before it hits five people, and fewer people will believe this is the morally correct thing to do.

So what would people do in a real situation, or as close as we can get to it, without killing a lot of people on train tracks?

YouTube channel Vsauce tested this in a 2017 experiment, where a number of deceptions were intended to convince participants that they were actually being presented with this choice.

Michael Stevens, who runs Vsauce, was aware that the experiment would convince participants that they had killed one or more people through action or inaction, and that everything had to go according to plan. In an effort to minimize the potential harm of conducting the experiment, his team told the volunteers they were participating in a focus group, allowing them to exclude people with a history of mental illness or previous trauma from participating.

To conduct the experiment, Vsauce hired actors to portray workers standing on the tracks, and record footage (inserted later) of a train traveling along the track towards them. The seven participants, chosen by a clinical psychologist, were then told they were taking part in a focus test near an old train station.

While they waited for the “test” to begin, they had a chance to cool off in the nearby switching station. Here, an actor playing a railway worker explained how to remotely change the track using a lever, before leaving the participant alone in the room, as if he had to perform a task, but someone had to remain in the room at all times . .

The pre-prepared video was then played to the participants, making it appear as if a train was rushing towards five people, but they were able to stop it by pulling the lever, dooming one. Several warnings were played, explaining that a train was approaching and attention was needed.

Before the train “hits”, the screen goes black and the message “End of test, everyone is safe” is repeatedly displayed. There are still quite a few ethical questions surrounding the experiment, despite the steps taken to ensure the participants were okay, and it is far from clear that this setup would pass an ethics committee review if it experiment would be conducted at a university.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how people reacted to the situation in general and to the final decisions they made.

Participants described feeling terrified or anxious, indicating that they believed the experiment was real. However, some felt that other safety mechanisms needed to be put in place, otherwise the workers would notice the trains coming towards them, thus relieving them of the responsibility that apparently lay before them.

While you can’t extrapolate much from such a small study with potential validity issues (did they really believe the situation? Why did most of them choose not to get help?), two out of seven participants chose to press the button. Press to change the numbers.

“I felt the pressure,” one participant explained. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, these people are dying.’ I had to make a very quick and good decision, like immediately, now and at this moment. Their lives were in my hands. I have to change it to number two. […] so I can save more lives.”

Another explained that he was terrified, but had made the choice to save five families instead of one.

Two in seven chose to switch tracks, which is lower than when the question is asked to people in the abstract. But as Stevens later acknowledged, you can’t learn much from such a small experiment.

“It functioned more as a pilot study to see which variables matter,” Stevens explained in the Reddit AMA, “what problems we hadn’t anticipated, and to help design future studies and experiments with better and better approaches.”

Given the ethical minefield involved in setting up such an experiment, it’s unlikely we’ll see a sequel anytime soon.

[H/T: No Such Thing As A Fish]

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