Monday, November 9, 2015

Trolleys, breathing, killing and letting die

Start with the standard trolley scenario: trolley is heading towards five innocent people but you can redirect it towards one. Suppose you think that it is wrong to redirect. Now add to the case the following: You're restrained in the control booth, and the button that redirects the trolley is very sensitive, so if you breathe a single breath over the next 20 seconds, the trolley will be redirected towards the one person.

To breathe or not to breathe, that is the question. If you breathe, you redirect. Suppose you hold your breath, thinking that redirecting is wrong. Why are you holding your breath, then? To keep the trolley away from the one person. But by holding your breath, you're also keeping the trolley on course towards the five. If in the original case it was wrong to redirect the trolley towards the one, why isn't it wrong to hold your breath so as to keep the trolley on course towards the five? So perhaps you need to breathe. But if you breathe, your breathing redirects the trolley, and you thought that was wrong.

I suppose the intuition behind not redirecting in the original case is a killing vs. letting die intuition: By redirecting, you kill the one. By not redirecting, you let the five die, but you don't kill them. However, when the redirection is controlled by the wonky button, things perhaps change. For perhaps holding one's breath is a positive action, and not just a refraining. So in the wonky button version, holding one's breath is killing, while breathing is letting die. So perhaps the person who thinks it's wrong to redirect in the original case can consistently say that in the breath case, it's obligatory to breathe and redirect.

But things aren't so simple. It's true that normally breathing is automatic, and that it is the holding of one's breath rather than the breathing that is a positive action. But if lives hung on it, you'd no doubt become extremely conscious of your breathing. So conscious, I suspect, that every breath would be a positive decision. So to breathe would then be a positive action. And so if redirecting in the original case is wrong, it's wrong to breathe in this case. Yet holding one's breath is generally a decision, too, a positive action. So now it's looking like in the breath-activated case, whatever happens, you do a positive action, and so you kill in both cases. It's better to kill one rather than killing five, so you should breathe.

But this approach makes what is right and wrong depend too much on your habits. Suppose that you have been trained for rescue operations by a utilitarian organization, so that it became second nature to you to redirect trolleys towards the smaller number of people. But now you've come to realize that utilitarianism is false, and you haven't been convinced by the Double Effect arguments for redirecting trolleys. Still, your instincts remain. You see the trolley, and you have an instinct to redirect. You would have to stop yourself from it. But stopping yourself is a positive action, just as holding your breath is. So by stopping yourself, you'd be killing the five. And by letting yourself go, you'd be killing the one. So by the above reasoning, you should let yourself go. Yet, surely, whether you should redirect or not doesn't depend on which action is more ingrained in you.

Where is this heading? Well, I think it's a roundabout reductio ad absurdum of the idea that you shouldn't redirect. The view that you should redirect is much more stable until such tweaks. If, on the other hand, you say in the original case that you should redirect, then you can say the same thing about all the other cases.

I think the above line of thought should make one suspicious of other cases where people want to employ the distinction between killing and letting-die. (Perhaps instead one should employ Double Effect or the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means of sustenance.)


Angra Mainyu said...


That's an interesting argument. I'll have to give it more thought, but for now, I have some brief comments:

1. Given how you characterize killing, it seems to me that by this argument, any instance of letting die can be said to be morally equivalent to an instance of killing: you just have to modify the agent and give her a propensity to save, so that refraining from doing it would be an instance of killing. Do you agree with that assessment?
2. A person who holds that redirecting is impermissible may hold that the reason is that the risk of dying the person on the side track goes from 0 to 1. That alternative seems impervious to your argument.
3. A person who holds that redirecting is impermissible may simply say they don't know why, as it's often the case in hypothetical scenarios, but it's intuitively clear.
4. Combining 2. and 3, she might say that perhaps the matter is due to the increased probability, but if not, it's still intuitively clear.

Side note: I don't actually claim it's impermissible. I'm undecided on the matter, especially if it's two people rather than five (if it's 10000000, I think it's permissible).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Ad 1: That seems to be an upshot of the argument. I am not comfortable with the conclusion, but that seems to be where it leads.

Angra Mainyu said...

Here's another consequence of the argument:

In the "utilitarian" case, the matter is between killing 1 or killing 5, according to the interpretation of what it is to kill that's implicit in the OP.
Also, while not all instances of killings are morally equivalent, the argument appears committed to holding that the ones under consideration are (else, one might say that the argument only replaces killing vs. letting die with morally different sorts of killings, and the conclusion is blocked). So, given it's between killing 1 and killing 5, the conclusion of the argument is that one should redirect. But that entails redirecting is not only morally permissible, but morally obligatory in the "utilitarian" case.
The argument also holds that whether you should redirect or not doesn't depend on which action is more ingrained in you.
Based on that, the conclusion is that in the original scenario, redirecting is morally obligatory. That seems particularly counterintuitive to me.

What do you think?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think this is one of those cases where we have good reason to think something is permissible iff it is obligatory, but we have a controversy about whether it is permissible. I think there are other cases like that.

Angra Mainyu said...

I agree there are cases in which we have good reason to think so, but I'm in doubt as to whether this one is among them.

Still, if it is permissible iff it's obligatory, that seems to give intuitive support to the view that it's impermissible, in my assessment - at least, I have no clear intuition about permissibility, but I do seem to have a strong intuition that it's not obligatory to redirect the trolley. (I don't know what the intuitions of most people would say, when it comes to the issue of whether it's obligatory).

Angra Mainyu said...

After further consideration, I don't think it's correct to classify every situation in which one makes an effort to refrain from letting die as a killing. But the argument seems to assume that it is, so further consequences of the argument are:

1. Let's consider the "utilitarian" case, but now there is only one innocent on each track. It's killing vs. killing, and killing one person rather than the other does not demean anyone's death, so it seems that tossing a coin and redirect or not depending on the coin's results is permissible. Furthermore, if one does not have a coin or similar means and there is no time to get one, then it seems redirecting is permissible. But since whether a behavior is permissible does not depend (as the argument holds) on what sort of behavior is ingrained in the agent, then even in OTC(1,1), tossing a coin is permissible, and redirecting if there is no coin is permissible. But that's against moral intuitions.

2. A pacient is dying, is suffering, and no longer wants doctors to keep using extraordinary means to keep him alive. But the doctor has an impulse to save lives - because of her training. So, when his heart stops, she makes an effort to refrain from saving him. By the argument's characterization of killing, she killed him, so she engaged in euthanasia (I think euthanasia is sometimes permissible by the way).

3. As before, the patient is dying, and after careful consideration, decides to tell doctors not to use extraordinary means to save him. He can still change his mind: if he goes into any sort of shock but is still conscious and presses a button, an alarm will sound, and the doctors will save him. So, something goes wrong, and he realizes it. He's dying. But he - like pretty much everyone else - has a survival instinct. Yet, he's considered the matter, and knows he will soon die anyway, but will suffer a lot more in the process if they save him. So, he refrains from pushing the button. By the characterization of killing in the argument, it seems the patient just committed suicide (I do think suicide is sometimes permissible).

Alexander R Pruss said...

These are really good cases.

Ad 1: The 1-1 case is intuitively (to me!) a borderline case, so the judgment could depend on fine details of the situation, including questions about what is and what is not ingrained.

I think we probably unknowingly do things similar to 1-1 redirecting quite a bit in our ordinary lives. You change lines while driving. This slightly delays traffic in one lane but not in another. It follows that when a driver miles back changes lanes without checking his blind spot, he kills the occupants of a different car than he would have had you not changed lanes.

Ad 2-3: Yes, these are cases of killing. But whether they are cases of intentional killing depends on further details. In 2, is the doctor making an effort to stop saving in order that the patient should die? If so, then it's an intentional killing. But maybe the doctor's goal is simply to avoid imposing medical procedures that the patient has refused to consent to. In that case, there is no intention to kill, though the doctor foresees that death will result. In 3, if he fights the survival instinct in order to die, he's intentionally killing himself and thus committing suicide. But if he fights the survival instinct not in order to die but in order to avoid painful procedures (crucial point: to avoid painful procedures rather than to avoid painful life; if the latter, then he's intending to die), then he is not intending his death, and hence he's not committing suicide.

Let me see if I can soften up up. In 3, suppose a third party grabs the patient's hand to keep him from pressing the button. This seems to be a case of killing. (Whether it's intentional killing or not depends on what the third party intends.) But why wouldn't it equally be a case of killing to grab one's own hand, tuck it in behind one's back, to keep oneself from pressing the button?

Angra Mainyu said...

Thanks, and good replies too.

1. We might do some things like that in our lives, and I think that 1-1 redirection is sometimes permissible. But what I was trying to get at is that the reasoning in the OP seems to commit one to the assessment that 1-1 redirection is permissible in the original trolley problem (at least, by tossing a coin if one has a coin, but without a coin if one does not have it).
2. Fair enough. So, the doctor is killing the patient by taking action he foresees will result in death. But now, let's say a doctor gives a patient a huge dose of morphine, foreseeing death, but with the intention of removing suffering. That would also look like a non-intentional killing by the same standards.
3. In case a third party grabs the patient's hand in order to stop him from pressing the button, that looks like killing...unless the patient has no intention of pressing it in the first place. Even if the third party holds the patient's hand with intent to kill, if the patient has no intention of pressing the button, that looks to me like attempted killing on the part of the third party, rather than killing. But if they do not intend to kill, it seems to me it's not killing or attempted killing.
The case seems tentatively analogous to me to an original trolley case in which a third party holds your hand in order to prevent you from flipping the lever. If they do that, are they killing the five innocents?
If you intended to flip the lever, it seems to me they kill them by preventing you from doing so, though maybe that's not a deliberate killing.
If you don't, it seems to me they're not killing them (depending on their intentions, they might engage in attempted killing, though).