Far & Near /​ Runaway Trolleys /​ The Proximity Of (Fat) Strangers

I went to the Royal Institute last week to hear the laconic and dismissive Dr Guy Kahane on whether we are ‘Biologically Moral

[His message: Neurological evidence suggests—somewhat alarmingly—that our moral and ethical decisions may be no more than post-hoc rationalisations of purely emotional, instinctive reactions. However, we should not panic because this is early days in neuroscience, and the correct interpretation of brain-scans is uncertain: scientist find the pattern, and the explanation, they expect to find]

To illustrate his talk Kahane used one of those moral dilemmas which are rarely encountered in real life but which are fascinating to philosophers: the familiar Trolley Problem

A picture is worth a 1,000 words and rather then spell it out Kahane flashed up two nice cartoons:

- the first shows the anxious philosophical protagonist at the railway junction, runaway trolley approaching, pondering the lever that moves the points

- the second shows our hapless philosopher now on a bridge poised behind an unsuspecting fat stranger who is neither alert enough for his attention to have been caught by the runaway trolley bearing down on the small party of railway workers, nor sufficiently familiar with the philosophical domain to appreciate the mortal danger that he is in himself. Irony, oh Irony: Philosophy, thy name is Drama.

So far so humdrum; but… surprise! : in the front row of the audience that evening, wedged into the seat next to me, and the seat next to that, only a couple of metres from Dr Kahane and dressed in identical clothes as when the cartoon was made was the fat stranger himself.

You had to feel for Dr Kahane, but with no evident embarrassment he declined to acknowledge the unexpected attendee and ploughed gamely on with an earnest discussion of the morals, ethics and practicalities of heaving the poor man off a bridge and under the wheels of an oncoming philosophical trope. I had to smile

And the Trolley Problem is always good for a lively debate so, inevitably, in the Q&A, we came back to it all over again, I felt more uncomfortable by now as members of the audience discussed at length the pros and cons of the fat man’s sorry and undeserved demise, none of them acknowledging his presence amongst us.

The fat man was, you might say, the elephant in the room.

My discovery

The reason the Trolley Problem is so intriguing and enduring is that it appears to neatly demonstrate Far and Near thinking : Although the two scenarios are logically identical, shifting a lever to divert a trolley down a track is Far, so most people will do it, but giving a fat man a shove is Near and this is why most people will decline.

What I discovered that evening is: that the bridge scenario is not, in fact, Near at all

Having the fat stranger sitting right next to you is Near !

You see, as an avowed nationalist and utilitarian, I have never before found the Trolley Problem to be any kind of dilemma: I am a slayer of the obese onlooker every time. But that particular evening when it came to the vote I found that simple embarrassment, and the trivial desire not to appear insensitive was enough to stay my rational hand and I sat on it, guiltily despatching five poor, hypothetical railway workers to their deaths, merely to avoid a momentary unkindness.

My Conclusions

- It seems there is Far Near and Near Near, and if you ever again find yourself with time to meta-think that you are operating in Near mode.… then you’re actually in Far mode.

- and so I will be more suspicious of the hypothetical thought experiments from now on.


But, you are asking, how did the Fat Man himself vote?
He declined to push, remarking drily that the fattest person on the bridge was very likely to be himself. He would, he said, jump.

He was most definitely thinking in Far mode.