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Moral dilemma at the dinner table

A few nights ago, I went out for a lovely dinner with some friends, a great opportunity to catch up on what everyone was up to, reminisce on shared experiences, and share a good few laughs. As we were working our way through everyone's latest news, someone asked me about my studies and research. Obviously, this is something I am really passionate about, and very happy to discuss, although I am always very mindful of balancing my own excitement with the need to keep it interesting and not to kill the atmosphere. As I started talking about my research in morality, I suddenly thought of a way of making it more tangible and involving others, by bringing up one of the exercises often used to assess responses to moral dilemmas, which is the trolley problem or dilemma.

I first brought up the trolley problem in an earlier article, amongst other theories and models around morality. In short, per the drawing above (not mine, and I was unable to find out who to credit for it), it puts people in a hypothetical situation whereby they stand at a railway track switch. A runaway trolley comes down the track, with no way of stopping. Down the track, 5 people are tied and will die if run over by the trolley. However, the subject of the test has the opportunity to switch the tracks, so that the trolley avoids those 5 people, saving them, but there is one person tied on this alternative track, which will die if the track is switched. And the question is simple. Would you switch the track? The aim is to help assess whether people apply a utilitarian approach whereby they look for the option causing the less damage or harm overall - in this case to switch the track, or a deontological / duty approach, whereby they are unwilling or unable to take an action which will result in harm which wouldn't have happened without their intervention - in our case they would not switch the tracks, as it would make them feel directly responsible for the death of the one individual on the alternative track.

I put the question to the group - knowing that research has showed that typically most people would decide to switch the track, however was lucky to harvest some very rich responses, including the following:

  • As a lucky starting point for the conversation, the first person to respond explained that they would not switch the track, causing a reaction from the rest of the table. Interestingly, the motivation given had an element of ethics around not wishing to intentionally cause harm, but a part of it was also about simply not wishing to intervene in order to keep a greater distance with the event, staying effectively removed from it, and from any sense of responsibility towards it - indeed actively distancing themselves from a morally challenging situation is a common coping mechanism.

  • The second person was suitably outraged by this first response, and went out to explain that it was a no-brainer situation, with the opportunity to save more lives if the track was switched. Challenged and pushed - what if the one person on the alternative track was a fellow supporter of the same football team, against 5 competitor supporters? - no change. In life, there is a right way and a wrong way to approach each situation, and in this case, the right way is to switch the track to save the greater amount of lives. End of!

  • Another person brought another dimension into it, asking for more information about the 5 people on one track and one person on the other. How much good have they all done / are they doing in their lives, and for society? What if the 5 had themselves caused much suffering? Essentially, what is going to be the net impact on society of each eventuality? Of course, in reality there would be no time for such an assessment, which would also remain quite subjective, however it was an interesting take on the utilitarian approach, a different way to assess or measure what the greatest benefit would be.

Up to that point, I had just been thoroughly enjoying listening to these different perspectives, wishing I had recorded this conversation for a more in-depth analysis, down to the choice of words and other fascinating details. So much so that, quite naively, I hadn't expected the next question, as predictable as it was, addressed to me about what I would do if faced with the trolley dilemma? In actual fact, in line with their initial answer which was the second above, the question coming from my friend was initially "So what is the right answer?". Which was an easy one to answer with another predictable "there is no right or wrong answer, only different approaches". So far, so well deflected. Well, not so fast... The pressure from the table was mounting for me to give my own response as to whether I would switch the track or not. No attempt at arguing that I acted as the researcher and therefore couldn't express an opinion would do.

This forced me to think the question through, albeit quickly, more than I had ever done, despite having read about this exercise a good deal in the past - perhaps because no answer evidently or instinctively came to mind. Before too long, my own fairness was questioned by my friends, on the basis that I should not be asking people to share a view on something if I wasn't prepared to share my own. This was said, of course in a friendly way, with the assumption that I wasn't ready to share the view which I undoubtedly had very clearly in my own mind; the reality was that my mind was trying to process various thoughts and beliefs, in a way that made me genuinely unable to provide a definitive answer, and in fact started to make me realise that I did not think it was possible, or fair, to expect a clear and definitive answer from anyone. Here is, roughly, where my thinking went:

  • The situation being hypothetical, only told in words rather than being acted out, and so far from the actual conditions that instincts and emotions didn't kick in to push me one way or the other

  • Therefore, from what I know about the exercise and meaning of the responses, I would reverse-engineer an answer, starting from my own sense of moral values, which would push me towards the deontological approach (i.e., not switching the tracks)

  • Immediately as a I come to this outcome, I am caught back up in my head by the realisation that there is no way for me to know the extent to which I could stick with these moral values when faced with the reality and urgency of the actual situation

With all this in mind, and in the space of a few seconds, all I was able to produce is an incoherent answer trying to convey this thinking process, which was of course not seen as satisfactory for what was perceived to be a binary question.

This quick thinking took me back to my fundamental beliefs and affinities as an aspiring academic with the idea of social constructionism; according to Viv Burr from the University of Huddersfield, "the key tenet of social constructionism is that our knowledge of the world, including our understanding of human beings, is a product of human thought rather than grounded in an observable, external reality". With the idea of keeping it light and not killing the atmosphere firmly behind me, I attempted an explanation of this concept, and why it mattered in the way I approached the trolley dilemma: effectively, I don't envisage there to be a general truth or version of reality which can predict that, given my personality traits and other factors, I will behave in a certain way; instead, the factors driving my decision and how I would construct the situation for myself there and then would involve a web of complex contextual factors, from individual and circumstantial ones, as far as societal and even historical ones.

As do all other theories and models, the trolley dilemma has its critiques, having been branded by some as a "moral sideshow". Through the course of that evening, I had gone from presenting the test in its intended way, to positioning myself on the side of these critiques, with regards to its validity and relevance to the type of research I seek to conduct - even though I would still find some keen interest in the concepts that are associated with it, such as the utilitarian vs. deontological approaches. Still, going through this conversation during this dinner gave me some fascinating insights in different thinking processes, but it also made me realise that bringing such questions and topics in this type of casual environment by just emphasising their more sensational and shocking aspect, if there isn't an opportunity to follow through with the right depth of context and analysis, should only ever be seen as conversation starter, even a party trick, rather than an attempt at educating, and that in the end, that the one who learned the most that evening was definitely me.

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