Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Trolley Problems

I'm about to start a course on Food Ethics in a couple of weeks. On our first day, we'll discuss how philosophers go about trying to solve moral problems and we'll begin talking about various thought experiments. For example, we're going to discuss "trolley problems." Here's a short description of some of these kinds of cases.

Some people complain that cases like these are too far-fetched or improbable that they can shed no light on morality or how we ought to make moral decisions. But others disagree and insist that thought experiments like these are good at isolating our moral intuitions and helping us get clear about what sorts of things really matter, morally speaking. I fall into the second group. It seems to me that we can use these sorts of thought experiments to tease out various moral principles (e.g., "one is always morally obligated to save as many lives as one can" or "it is morally good to save five people even if doing so requires that another person die") and see whether they ought to be accepted. This work is a bit easier, I think, at an abstract level. And, of course, the idea is that we can employ what we've learned from such thought experiments to solve "real life" moral problems. So even though such cases are far-fetched, they still seem to have some import on actual moral issues which we face.