Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Trolleys and chaos

Suppose that determinism is true and Alice is about to roll a twenty-sided die to determine which of twenty innocent prisoners to murder. There is nothing you can do to stop her. You are in Alice’s field of view. Now, a die roll, even if deterministic, is very sensitive to the initial conditions. A small change in Alice’s throw is apt to affect the outcome. And any behavior of yours is apt to affect Alice’s throw. You frown, and Alice becomes slightly tenser when she throws. You smile, and Alice pauses a little wondering what you’re smiling about, and then she throws differently. You turn around not to watch, and Alice grows annoyed or pleased, and her throw is affected.

So it’s quite reasonable to think that whatever you do has a pretty good chance, indeed close to a 95% chance, of changing which of the prisoners will die. In other words, with about 95% probability, each of your actions is akin to redirecting a trolley heading down a track with one person onto a different track with a different person.

Some people—a minority—think that it is wrong to redirect a trolley heading for five people to a track with only one person. I wonder what they could say should be done in the Alice case. If it’s wrong to redirect a trolley from five people to one person, it seems even more wrong to redirect a trolley from one person to another person. So since any discernible action is likely to effectively be a trolley redirection in the Alice case, it seems you should do nothing. But what does “do nothing” mean? Does it mean: stop all external bodily motion? But stopping all external bodily motion is itself an effortful action (as anybody who played Lotus Focus on the Wii knows). Or does it mean: do what comes naturally? But if one were in the situation described, one would likely become self-conscious and unable to do anything “naturally”.

The Alice case is highly contrived. But if determinism is true, then it is very likely that many ordinary actions affect who lives and who dies. You talk for a little longer to a colleague, and they start to drive home a little later, which has a domino effect on the timing of people’s behaviors in traffic today, which then slightly affects when people go to sleep, how they feel when they wake up, and eventually likely affects who dies and who does not die in a car accident. Furthermore, minor differences in timing affect the timing of human reproducive activity, which is likely to affect which sperm reaches the ovum, which then affects the personalities of people in the next generation, and eventually affects who lives and who dies. Thus, if we live in a deterministic world, we are constantly “randomly” (as far as we are concerned, since we don’t know the effects) redirectly trolleys between paths with unknown numbers of people.

Hence, if we live in a deterministic world, then we are all the time in trolley situations. If we think that trolley redirection is morally wrong, then we will be morally paralyzed all the time. So, in a deterministic world, we better think that it’s OK to redirect trolleys.

Of course, science (as well as the correct theology and philosophy) gives us good reason to think we live in an indeterministic world. But here is an intuition: when we deal with the external world, it shouldn’t make a difference whether we have real randomness or the quasi-randomness that determinism allows. It really shouldn’t matter whether Alice is flipping an indeterministic die or a deterministic but unpredictable one. So our conclusions should apply to our indeterministic world as well.

10 comments:

IanS said...

Trolley problems test the intuition that actively causing harm is worse than passively failing to prevent it. Should you intervene and cause one death, or stand aside and permit five?

I’m not seeing any such issue in the Alice case. Granted, anything you do (or choose not to do) could change which prisoner gets shot. But nothing you can do can change the probability (as judged by you, before the event, knowing everything relevant that it is possible for you know) of any particular prisoner being shot – it’s 1/20, whatever you do. There is a moral issue – you are inadvertently and inescapably involved in a murder – but no issue of moral choice.

Walter Van den Acker said...

It seems like Alex has illustrated here that the problem of evil is even worse than we thought.
We are stuck in a world filled with evil, and we cannot do anything about it.
This doesn't sound like the creation of a perfectly good God

Alexander R Pruss said...

Walter:

I think we already knew we were in a world filled with evil we can't knowingly do much about. Does it add much to that that we have some inscrutable effects on the evils? Are such inscrutable effects morally relevant?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Ian:

I think the following three problems are morally equivalent:

1. A one-one trolley where the two people are strangers hidden behind curtains and they are already on the tracks.

2. A one-one trolley where the two people will be dropped on the track moments after your decision time, and the choice of which person will go on which track was already made by means of a deterministic coin toss you know nothing about.

3. A one-one trolley where the two people will be dropped on the track moments after your decision time, and the choice of which person will go on which track will be made by means of a deterministic coin toss you know nothing about.

Now, in cases 2 and 3, it's still true that "nothing you can do can change the probability (as judged by you, before the event, knowing everything relevant that it is possible for you know) of any particular [person] being [killed by the trolley -- it's [1/2], whatever you do." So if you think that the Alice case doesn't raise a "moral choice", you should think the randomized one-one trolley in 2 and 3 doesn't raise a moral choice. But I don't see any moral difference between 1 and 2. It surely makes no difference whether the strangers are already on the tracks, if there is a fact of the matter as to which one will be where.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

If what we do or don't do makes no real difference, there is no objective morailty.
And maybe youknow we are in a world filled with evil we can't knowingly do much about, but I am not so sure about it. Mymorailty is based on the idea that I can do something about it.

IanS said...

As I see it, the point of trolley problems is to test our intuitions about intervention. In the Alice case, you can’t not intervene, but there is no intervention that could change your expectations (before the event) about the outcome. So any intuitions you may have about intervention are irrelevant.

In cases 2 and 3 (unlike in the Alice case) you can choose to intervene or not, but (as in the Alice case) your choice will not change your expectations. People who think that intervention is in itself bad (other things being equal) will not intervene. Those who don’t will be indifferent.

In case 1, your choice will change your expectations – you can choose to save either ‘the stranger on the main track’ or ‘the stranger on the side track’. But since they are both strangers, you are indifferent between these outcomes. The conclusion is the same as for cases 2 and 3, but the reason is different.

Some interesting questions. Would it make a difference to case 1 if there were no curtains, and you could see both people as individuals, albeit strangers? What if you recognized one person (maybe she is your daughter) but not the other? What if you recognized both people? These cases seem to raise issues that don’t apply to similarly modified versions of 2 and 3.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Ian:

"In case 1, your choice will change your expectations – you can choose to save either ‘the stranger on the main track’ or ‘the stranger on the side track’."

In cases 2 and 3, you can do pretty much the same thing, except that it's "the stranger who has been selected by the coin toss to be on the main track" or "the stranger who has been selected by the coin toss to be on the side track".

In the Alice case, you've got a 95% chance of saving "the stranger who will die if you don't frown".

Alexander R Pruss said...

Walter:

I said that the world is filled with evil we can do nothing about, but not that the world is filled ONLY with such evil. There is also a lot of evil we CAN do something about.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

We can intend to do something about some evils, but we can never be sure we actually do something about thema.
Say we see somebody in who is about to drown the middle of a pond, we can save him, but who is to say drowning is evil?
Maybe that same man is a serial killer and as a result of me saving him, 10 people will be killed

Matthew & Revelation match up said...


Uh, hellooooo!
Alice doesn't live here any more.



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