The Trolley Problem Problem

The Trolley Problem Problem November 8, 2017

Since today I will be talking about the ethics of driverless cars, I of course was struck by these words in an article about the famous trolley problem:

In real life, very few people face trolley problems, unless their job is literally to program collision avoidance algorithms for driverless cars.

In (presumably deliberate) contrast to the paralyzing ambiguity at the heart of the trolley problem, the article’s title is not in the slightest bit ambiguous as to what the authors think: “The Trolley Problem Will Tell You Nothing Useful about Morality.” Its authors, Brianna Rennix and Nathan Robinson, argue that, in fact, the unreal and convoluted situations we explore in this philosophical thought experiment merely serve to justify inaction in the real life situations in which there is a clearly better and worse option. Here is how it starts:

You are on an asteroid careening through the cosmos. Aboard the asteroid with you are nine hundred highly-skilled physicians, who have been working on developing a revolutionary medication that will cure every disease in the known universe. The asteroid’s current trajectory is taking it straight toward the Planet of Orphans, where all intergalactic civilizations have dumped their unwanted offspring, of which there are now 100 trillion, all living, breathing, and mewling. If you detonate the asteroid, all of the doctors will die, along with the hope for curing every disease in the universe. If you do not detonate the asteroid, the doctors will have time to develop the cure and send it hurtling toward the Healing Planet before you crash into and destroy the Planet of Orphans. Thus you face the crucial question: how useful is this hypothetical for illuminating moral truths?

Click through to see where they go from there.

I shared some trolley problem memes last year, and of those, this seems the most relevant to the article:

Philosopher's job trolley problem

But there are others more directly related to my talk, such as this one that specifically engages with Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics:

asimov trolley problem

But the one most relevant to the issue of driverless cars is this one that was shared by Caleb Watney on Twitter:

Real Driverless Car Trolley Problem


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