[extropy-chat] frozen in fire

Anders Sandberg asa at nada.kth.se
Mon Jan 22 00:21:12 UTC 2007

Robert Bradbury wrote:
> I was recently sitting in the cafeteria at the Harvard Science Center (not
> so unusual)... but as cafeterias at such institutions are prone to be two
> undergrads(?) at the table next to me were debating a moral delima
> (apparently an assignment) regarding a train running down a track and
> depending upon the decisions of the conductor would produce a net savings
> of
> lives "on the train" or lives in the towns in front of the train.

Here it is usually stated as the "trolley problem", where pulling a lever
saves some people at the expense of someone else. There is a hillarious
parody of this kind of thought experiment at
http://www.mindspring.com/~mfpatton/Tissues.htm - after one year in Oxford
I agree with the comment below the text.

BTW, the trolley problem has some interesting neuroethical complications.
In the case of pulling a lever most people (after some agonizing) end up
saving the many at the expense of the few, a utilitarian approach. But
change the problem to that you are standing on top of a bridge and see the
trolley run down the track. You can either push a very fat man down onto
the tracks (he will reliably stop the trolley but will die; you are too
small to have any effect if you sacrifice yourself) or do nothing as the
trolley runs into a group of people. In this case most people actually do
not save the many.

Joshua Greene imaged the brains of people dealing with this kind of
problem, and could see more activation in amygdala and other emotional
systems and less in frontal lobe working memory systems when the moral
problem got more personal:
This has led to a fun neuroethical debate as Peter Singer has launched a
general attack on "moral intuitions" as being irrational, and more or less
only the utilitarian consideration as rational based on this. Some of our
local neuroethicists disagree. Everybody are now busy writing papers
refuting each other.

Anders Sandberg,
Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics
Philosophy Faculty of Oxford University

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