Posts Tagged Philosophy

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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Arianna Huffington, Wisdom, and Stoicism 1.0

Arianna HuffingtonArianna Huffington spoke at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last week. Interviewed by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, Huffington spoke mainly on topics in her recently published Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. 2500 attendees packed Davies Symphony Hall. Several of us were men. 

Huffington began with the story of her wake-up call to the idea that success is killing us. She told of collapsing from exhaustion, hitting the corner of her desk on the way down, gashing her forehead and breaking her cheek bone.

She later realized that “by any sane definition of success, if you are lying in a pool of blood on the floor of your office you’re not a success.”

After this epiphany Huffington began an inquiry into the meaning of success. The first big change was realizing that she needed much more sleep. She joked that she now advises women to sleep their way to the top. Sleep is a wonder drug.

Her reexamination of success also included personal values. She referred to ancient philosophers who asked what is a good life. She explicitly identified her current doctrine with that of the Stoics (not to be confused with modern use of the term stoic). “Put joy back in our everyday lives,” she says. She finds that we have shrunken the definition of success down to money and power, and now we need to expand it again. Each of us needs to define success by our own criteria, hence the name of her latest book. The third metric in her book’s title includes focus on well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.

Refreshingly (for me at least) Huffington drew repeatedly on ancient western philosophy, mostly that of the Stoics. In keeping with the Stoic style, her pearls often seem self-evident only after the fact:

“The essence of what we are is greater than whatever we are in the world.” 

Take risk. See failure as part of the journey, not the opposite of success. (paraphrased) 

I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself. 

“We may not be able to witness our own eulogy, but we’re actually writing it all the time, every day.” 

“It’s not ‘What do I want to do?’, it’s ‘What kind of life do I want to have?” 

“Being connected in a shallow way to the entire world can prevent us from being deeply connected to those closest to us, including ourselves.” 

“‘My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.'” (citing Montaigne)

Marcus AureliusAs you’d expect, Huffington and Sandberg suggested that male-dominated corporate culture betrays a dearth of several of the qualities embodied in Huffington’s third metric. Huffington said the most popular book among CEOs is the Chinese military treatise, The Art of War. She said CEOs might do better to read children’s books like Silverstein’s The Giving Tree or maybe Make Way for Ducklings. Fair enough; there are no female Bernie Madoffs.

I was pleasantly surprised by Huffington. I found her earlier environmental pronouncements to be poorly conceived. But in this talk on success, wisdom, and values, she shone. Huffington plays the part of a Stoic well, though some of the audience seemed to judge her more of a sophist. One attendee asked her if she really believed that living the life she identified in Thrive could have possibly led to her current success. Huffington replied yes, of course, adding that she, like Bill Clinton, found they’d made all their biggest mistakes while tired.

Huffington’s quotes above align well with the ancients. Consider these from Marcus Aurelius, one of the last of the great Stoics:

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. 

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking. 

Confine yourself to the present.

 Be content to seem what you really are. 

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.

I particularly enjoyed Huffington’s association of sense-of-now, inner calm, and wisdom with Stoicism, rather than, as is common in Silicon Valley, with a misinformed and fetishized understanding of Buddhism. Further, her fare was free of the intellectualization of mysticism that’s starting to plague Wisdom 2.0. It was a great performance.





Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent. – Epictetus