Intuition and moral theory (train tracks)

Would you push a fat man off the bridge?

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Rick Sendelbeck looks at whether intuition is enough to justify our decision-making

The popular trolley problem and related thought experiments highlight the differences between deontological (rule-based) and consequentialist (outcome-focused) systems of morality.

Imagine that you see five children playing on a railway line. Suddenly you see an out of control trolley zooming down the line towards the kids. On a bridge over the railway you see a very fat man. It suddenly occurs to you that if you push the fat man off the bridge his sheer size and bulk will stop the trolley and the children will be safe. However, the fat man will almost certainly die. The ethical question facing you is, “would you push the fat man off the bridge?”

Intuitions and morals

This question is the basis of the philosophy research of Rick Sendelbeck, a PhD Philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh.

Rick is interested in our first response to this dilemma, which he calls our intuition. We don’t have time to carefully think through the situation, because the children would die. We are challenged to make a decision based on our intuition alone. But is this intuition sufficient evidence for us to make a decision? If we kill the fat man but save the children, would we have enough evidence to justify our decision in a court of law?

Rick’s research is ongoing. However, in the meantime, we should all take great care near railway lines!

Related Links

Rick Sendelbeck

The original trolley problem explained via TED-Ed:

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