Europa Malynicz pointed out to me that the BBC currently has a discussion of famous thought experiments in ethics, including Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist case, and a few variants on runaway trolley cars. As of this writing, over 12000 people had sent in their votes on the moral status of actions in the examples, and it is interesting to see what this (self-selected, non-random) sample of the folk think. I’ve got some comments on the results below the fold, but I’d rather everyone here went and voted before seeing the votes, so I’ve put them below the fold.
The votes on three of the cases are fairly unsurprising. In Thomson’s violinist case, the vast majority thinks that you aren’t obliged to stay hooked up to the violinist. In the original trolley case, a vast majority thinks it is OK to flip the switch and thereby kill the one in order to save the five. (75.6% say yes.) In the fat man case, where the only way to save the five is to push the fat man off the bridge, only a small minority say it is OK to push the guy and thereby kill the one in order to save the five. (24.43%)
The first thing to note this is that although the group of voters taken collectively has very different opinions about the two cases, it seems opinion is split fairly evenly on whether the cases are alike or unlike. Assuming that only a handful of people say that it is wrong to flick the switch, but right to push the fat man, then only a whisker over 50% of people think the cases are unlike. A lot of philosophical energy goes into explaining just why the cases are unlike, but if this poll is right (big ‘if’) that view is one that is only barely a majority view. That’s even among BBC magazine readers, who are presumably paradigmatic of the kind of folk that we have in mind when we talk of the folk.
The big surprise for me was the result of the fat man stuck in the cave example. A vast majority say that it is OK to dynamite away the fat man who threatens the lives of the people in the cave. In that case 76.1% of people say it is OK. That’s an even larger percentage than in the original trolley case, though the difference is not significant. I’d have thought the cave case went with the fat man on the bridge case. Yet more ignorance of what the folk are like on my part I guess.
What could be driving the differences? Here are three hypotheses, in order of descending charity to the voters. (Descending that is from a pretty low starting point!)
Hypothesis one: By having the hypothetical voter imagine the cave from the inside, you get the voter to empathise with the potential victim. This view holds that people are basically utilitarian, and what is to be explained away is the anomolous result concerning the Fat Man case. The anomoly is explained by noting that making people empathise more with one side (the Fat Man standing right in front of you) than the other (the nameless faceless five stuck out of site in a tunnel) you can draw them away from their natural utilitarian inclinations. So it is all a framing effect.
Hypothesis two: It matters that the voter is to imagine themselves in the cave. Many people have the view that it isn’t OK to kill an innocent person to save a third party, but it is OK, morally OK, to kill an innocent person to save their own life. This view says that people hold that the right to self-defence, even against innocents, to be a strong moral principle, even though there is no such right to defend others.
Hypothesis three: If the guy in the cave hadn’t been so fat, there wouldn’t have been a problem. So he isn’t really an innocent. So rules against killing the innocent don’t count in the minds of some voters in this case.
If those are the choices, I’d choose one. But I’d rather think that I’d missed a more charitable explanation of the voting patterns.