Let’s just fix the trolley

The classic formulation of the trolley-problem thought experiment goes something like this:

A runaway trolley hurtles toward five tied-up people on the main track. You see a lever that controls the switch. Pull it and the trolley switches to a side track, saving the five people, but will kill one person tied up on the side track. Your choices:

  1. Do nothing and let the trolley kill the five on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track causing it to kill one person.

At this point the Ethics 101 class debates the issue and dives down the rabbit hole of deontology, virtue ethics, and consequentialism. That’s probably what Philippa Foot, who created the problem, expected. At this point engineers probably figure that the ethicists mean cable-cars (below right), not trolleys (streetcars, left), since the cable cars run on steep hills and rely on a single, crude mechanical brake while trolleys tend to stick to flatlands. But I digress.

Many trolley problem variants exist. The first twist usually thrust upon trolley-problem rookies was called “the fat man variant” back in the mid 1970s when it first appeared. I’m not sure what it’s called now.

The same trolley and five people, but you’re on a bridge over the tracks, and you can block it with a very heavy object. You see a very fat man next to you. Your only timely option is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, which will certainly kill him and will certainly save the five. To push or not to push.

Ethicists debate the moral distinction between the two versions, focusing on intentionality, double-effect reasoning etc. Here I leave the trolley problems in the competent hands of said ethicists.

But psychologists and behavioral economists do not. They appropriate the trolley problems as an apparatus for contrasting emotion-based and reason-based cognitive subsystems. At other times it becomes all about the framing effect, one of the countless cognitive biases afflicting the subset of souls having no psych education. This bias is cited as the reason most people fail to see the two trolley problems as morally equivalent.

The degree of epistemological presumptuousness displayed by the behavioral economist here is mind-boggling. (Baby, you don’t know my mind…, as an old Doc Watson song goes.) Just because it’s a thought experiment doesn’t mean it’s immune to the rules of good design of experiments. The fat-man variant is radically different from the original trolley formulation. It is radically different in what the cognizing subject imagines upon hearing/reading the problem statement. The first scenario is at least plausible in the real world, the second isn’t remotely.

First off, pulling the lever is about as binary as it gets: it’s either in position A or position B and any middle choice is excluded outright. One can perhaps imagine a real-world switch sticking in the middle, causing an electrical short, but that possibility is remote from the minds of all but reliability engineers, who, without cracking open MIL-HDBK-217, know the likelihood of that failure mode to be around one per 10 million operations.

Pushing someone, a very heavy someone, over the railing of the bridge is a complex action, introducing all sorts of uncertainty. Of course the bridge has a railing; you’ve never seen one that didn’t. There’s a good chance the fat man’s center of gravity is lower than the top of the railing because it was designed to keep people from toppling over it. That means you can’t merely push him over; you more have to lift him up to the point where his CG is higher than the top of railing. But he’s heavy, not particularly passive, and stronger than you are. You can’t just push him into the railing expecting it to break either. Bridge railings are robust. Experience has told you this for your entire life. You know it even if you know nothing of civil engineering and pedestrian bridge safety codes. And if the term center of gravity (CG) is foreign to you, by age six you have grounded intuitions on the concept, along with moment of inertia and fulcrums.

Assume you believe you can somehow overcome the railing obstacle. Trolleys weigh about 100,000 pounds. The problem statement said the trolley is hurtling toward five people. That sounds like 10 miles per hour at minimum. Your intuitive sense of momentum (mass times velocity) and your intuitive sense of what it takes to decelerate the hurtling mass (Newton’s 2nd law, f = ma) simply don’t line up with the devious psychologist’s claim that the heavy person’s death will save five lives. The experimenter’s saying it – even in a thought experiment – doesn’t make it so, or even make it plausible. Your rational subsystem, whether thinking fast or slow, screams out that the chance of success with this plan is tiny. So you’re very likely to needlessly kill your bridge mate, and then watch five victims get squashed all by yourself.

The test subjects’ failure to see moral equivalence between the two trolley problems speaks to their rationality, not their cognitive bias. They know an absurd hypothetical when they see one. What looks like humanity’s logical ineptitude to so many behavioral economists appears to the engineers as humanity’s cultivated pragmatism and an intuitive grasp of physics, factor-relevance evaluation, and probability.

There’s book smart, and then there’s street smart, or trolley-tracks smart, as it were.

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  1. #1 by Stephen Christie on August 24, 2019 - 12:13 am

    Thanks for this. I enjoyed reading it and I agree. I’ve heard people say that people writing algorithms for self-drive cars have to decide the rights and wrongs of the trolley problem and its variations, presumably including the fat man variation. But do they? If it’s such an absurd situation that it never happens, then it might be better for the coders to focus on eliminating bugs from the algorithms for all the situations that can reasonably be expected to occur.

    • #2 by Bill Storage on August 24, 2019 - 11:03 pm

      Seems far fetched indeed. Would bring new meaning to the term “moral code,” no?

  2. #3 by Matthew Squair on August 31, 2019 - 12:24 am

    IIRC Philipa Foot developed the trolley problem as a tool to show that all ethical frameworks have their own beautiful failure modes regardless of whether you are a believer in utilitarianism, the categorical imperative, objectivism or whatever.

    And of course everyone assumes our AI will be strict utilitarianists. One could just as well program them with the works of Ayn Rand. 🙂

  3. #4 by Bill Storage on September 9, 2019 - 3:58 am

    Thanks for the interesting point about Phlipa Foote. Was not aware of that. Good to hear it. And yes, since it’s fashionable to feign utilitarianism, AI will of course take that rational route while escaping Hume’s Guillotine. I wonder whether strong AI will grow consumed with the possibility that it is living in a simulation.

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