Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The five-five trolley

The standard trolley case is where a trolley is heading to a track with five people, and you can redirect it to a track with one person. It seems permissible to do so.

But now imagine that a trolley is heading to a track with five people, and you can redirect it to another track also with five people. Why would you bother? Well, suppose that you enjoy turning the steering wheel on the trolley, and you reason that there is no overall harm in your redirecting the trolley.

This seems callous.

Yet we are in cases like the five-five trolley all the time. By the butterfly effect, many minor actions of ours affect the timings of human mating (you have a short conversation with someone as they are leaving work; this affects traffic patterns, and changes the timing of sexual acts for a number of people in the traffic), which then changes which sperm reaches an ovum, and hence affects which human beings exist in the next generation, and the changes balloon, and pretty soon there are major differences as to who is in the path of a hurricane, and so on.

But of course there is still a difference between the five-five trolley and the butterfly effect cases. In the five-five trolley, you know some of the details of the effects of your action: you know that these five will die if you don’t redirect and those five if you do. But note that these details are not much. You still may not know any of the ten people from Adam. In the butterfly effect cases, you can say a fair amount about the sort of effects your minor action has, but not much more than that.

What’s going on? I am inclined to think that here we should invoke something about the symbolic meaning of one’s actions. In the case where one turns the steering wheel on the trolley for fun, while knowing epistemically close effects, one exhibits a callous disregard for the sanctity of human life. But when one has a conversation with someone after work, given the epistemic distance, one does not exhibit the same callous disregard.

It is not surprising if callousness and regard for sacredness should depend on fine details of epistemic and other distance. Think of the phenomenon of jokes that come “too soon” after a terrible event: they show a callous disregard for evil. But similar jokes about temporally, personally and/or epistemically distant events may be acceptable.


Matt Bilyeu said...

I think there's a theodicy in there. If it's the case that our origin is an essential property to us, then even God could not bring about our existence without bringing about this world (or one almost identical to it). If anything changed in the world at all, then a different population would have instead existed.

If one things that, on balance, it is good that humanity exists then one things that, on balance, God has brought about something good in bringing about this world. If all of the pain and suffering in the world is necessary for the existence of the people who are here, then we might be well justified in saying that it was worth it. If that's the case, then God's character cannot be maligned for bringing about this world.

But what about another world with less suffering? A different population would exist and we would not, but that population would endure less suffering. It is a hard sell to say that God owed that fictitious population their existence, and so he has not wronged any of them for having refrained from bringing about their world.

Thus he is neither wrong for bringing about this world nor wrong for failing to bring about another.

Walter Van den Acker said...

But that comes down to "if God wanted to create me, this was the only way to do so".
Sure if my origin is an essential property to me, then so are my experiences. if anything changed in my experiences, I would have been a different person.
But what if God did not want me to exist? Would he have wronged me? And if God had not created any persons, would that have been wrong?
The standard answer to why God created anything at all is that God created not for His own sake, but for the sake of the creatures. In that case, God owed any fictitious persosn their existence.

Matt Bilyeu said...

Your origin is essential to you, but things could go differently after you were born.

I also don’t see how, “God wants to create people,” translates to, “God owes such people their existence.”

So no, I don’t think God would wronged you if he didn’t want you to exist nor would it have been wrong if he refrained from creating anyone.

Walter Van den Acker said...


I don't see any reason for why my origin would be essential to me, while my experiences are not. Things could have gone differently before I was born as well.
I don't know if you have ever read the novel or seen the movie "The Boys from Brazil".
There we have Hitler clones, and in order for them to become new Hitlers, they are exposed to the exact same environment as the real Hitler, so that their experiences will be similar.
I don't know about you, but I am convinced that if little Adolf had had another youth, he would have been a different person.

I did not say that “God wants to create people,” translates to, “God owes such people their existence,” I said that if God creates for the sake of the creatures, he owes them their existence.

Matt Bilyeu said...

He certainly would have had a different worldview with different beliefs/actions, but I don’t see how the substance that he is would be different. If his origin were different, however, then it would be a totally different substance.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Let w0 be our world. Suppose in alternate world w1, little Adolf has a different youth starting with age three. He eventually converts to Hassidic Judaism and becomes a wise and gentle baker.


1. w0's middle-aged Adolf is the same person as w0's two-year-old Adolf
2. w1's middle-aged Adolf is the same person as w1's two-year-old Adolf
3. w0's two-year-old Adolf is the same person as w1's two-year-old Adolf

It follows by symmetry and transitivity of identity that:

4. w0's middle-aged Adolf is the same person as w1's middle-aged Adolf.

Hence up-bringing is irrelevant to which person you are.

Walter Van den Acker said...


But your reply begs the question.
If I am correct, then obviously 1 is false.
In 1 you already assume your conclusion, which is question-begging.

Matt Bilyeu said...


It may be helpful to make a few distinctions. When we are considering identity we want to know what falls within the scope. Typically this is done by referring to *essential* properties.

Essential properties are those properties that, if you did not have them, then it would not be you. For example, you have the property of "being a human being." It is unclear how you could still be you but instead be a chair or an airplane. If you lacked the property of "being a human being" then something might exist but that thing wouldn't be identical to you.

Above you suggest that our beliefs (our worldview) is essential to our identity. So if Adolf Hitler had come to adopt a different worldview, then he would have been a different person.

This poses a serious problem. Consider someone who converts to Christianity (they adopt a totally different worldview). Do they survive the conversion? It seems clear that they do, but if our worldview is essential to us then they do not. They cease to exist with the end of their previous worldview and a new person begins to exist with the adoption of the new worldview. This new person has only existed for a few seconds (just after conversion). Would such a person honestly say, "I'm only a few second old."? Cleary not!

If not, then our worldview (or the upbringing that leads to it) is not essential to our identity.

Now in the colloquial sense of "person", Adolf certainly would be a different person. When we use "person" colloquially, we mean "personality." I certainly am "a different person" than I was before I was married, for example. We want to be very clear, however, that this colloquial use of the word "person" is not imported into our analysis of identity.

Walter Van den Acker said...


I don't think the distinction is helpful at all. Being person X includes having personality X.
So, after conversion, an important part of person's X personality has been changed, hence he has become person Y. Of course, he still retains some properties of person X, so person X has not completely ceased to exist.
It's interesting that you would choose the example of a convert, because i am sure you have heard the phrase "born again Christian". You will probably see this as a metaphor, but I think that phrase is spot on. Conversion (or reconversion) to Christianity is so important to them, they they consider themselves born again.
In short, yes, the Christian in this case is really only a few seconds old.
So, it does only poses a serious problem if you already assume that which you are supposed to argue for. Only then is it clearly not the case that he is only a few seconds old.
But, like I told Alex, this begs the question.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Suppose the deviation occurred at some point after age 18. Would you really want to say that the 18-year-old Adolf wasn't the same person as the 30-year-old Adolf, so that if the 18-year-old Adolf made a promise or committed a crime or took out a loan, the 30-year-old Adolf wouldn't need to keep the promise, or wouldn't be appropriately punished for the crime, or have to pay back the loan?

Walter Van den Acker said...


Yes, I would say the 30-year-old Adolf was not the same person as the 18-year-old Adolf, but in most cases he would have to play back the loan.
I have never claimed that nothing at all is left of the original person.
Punishment is a bit more complicated

Dominik Kowalski said...

That is absolutely not the standard answer