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the murder on trolley track b


From my piker’s point of view, moral philosophy can be illuminated by imaginary scenarios, but it can’t be based on imaginary scenarios. If we treat these scenarios like "experiments" -and if we grant there can be experiments that are, by design, possible only in the imagination - than we have to have some idea of what narration is about, and what varying a narrative does. I think the recent riot of utilitarians all exercising their effective altruism is a case of thought experiment poisoning. Too much depends on the “trolley problem”, and not enough interest is put into analysing the narrative of the “trolley problem” – including the odd use of the word “save” which pops up in trolley prob discussions.  When people start to talk about “saving” others, I start to ask about the psychopathology of the saviour complex.

I saved no body today by not driving up on sidewalks and ramming into people. That is a bad, but comic, description of driving down the street. 

If a scenario becomes stereotypical, it limits the imagination, which is why philosophers who indulge too much in imaginary scenarios should definitely read  Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

When I first heard tell of the trolley problem, I laughed. My aesthetic instinct, as opposed to my moral one, thought that the narrative structure was joke-like. However, the trolley story has had such a large afterlife since it was formulated by Phillipa Foot that I have given this doubtful scenario a little bit more thought. It does seem like an  illuminating scenario about the “vocational instinct” that causes  philosophers to place themselves automatically in the managerial class and to make moral judgments within that position. The standard scenario is of a driver of a brakeless trolly who can go down track a and hit five people or swerve and go down track b and hit one person. This is often contrasted with the scenario of a surgeon who can “save” lives with some transplants. Here is a version taken from Judith Jarvis Thomson’s The Trolley Problem:

“Now consider a second hypothetical case. This time you are to imagine yourself to be a surgeon, a truly great surgeon. Among other things you do, you transplant organs, and you are such a great surgeon that the organs you transplant always take. At the moment you have five patients who need organs. Two need one lung each, two need a kidney each, and the fifth needs a heart. If they do not get those organs today, they will all die; if you find organs for them today, you can transplant the organs and they will all live. But where to find the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart? The time is almost up when a report is brought to you that a young man who has just come into your clinic for his yearly check-up has exactly the right blood-type, and is in excellent health. Lo, you have a possible donor. All you need do is cut him up and distribute his parts among the five who need them. You ask, but he says, "Sorry. I deeply sympathize, but no." Would it be morally permissible for you to operate anyway? Everybody to whom I have put this second hypothetical case says, No, it would not be morally permissible for you to proceed. Here then is Mrs. Foot's problem: Why is it that the trolley driver may turn his trolley, though the surgeon may not remove the young man's lungs, kidneys, and heart?"

The philosophy story, with some exceptions, puts the philosopher (pace Nietzsche) in the role of the operator, not the operated upon. In the trolley story, we have no input from the operated upon – the laborers – they would be laborers – upon the track. The surgeon, it is emphasized, is a great surgeon. Of course! At least here the patient has some say – namely, I would prefer not to.

The lack of curiosity about the narrating business spoils the moral fun, in my opinion. Phillipa Foot definitely needs to meet Raymond Queneau – the Queneau of Exercises in Style. That little book takes a commonplace and rather drab situation that happens, as it happens, on a trolly – or rather, on busline S. He gets jostled  by another passage, almost sobbingly reproaches the latter, jumps for a recently empty seat, gets off, and is seen two hours later at the gare St. Lazaire, talking to a comrade about a lost button on his overcoat.

From that situation, Queneau extracts 98 other ways of telling this story, ranging from shifting to the first person to a generalizing tone – dubbed philosophique – that seeks to find the phenomenology of coincidence adumbrated in this story – to  a medical account, etc. You could stretch out the trolley problem easily -for instance, while the trolley driver runs over the one person on track two, it turns out the six laborers are part-time circus artists and were well prepared to squeeze into the margins of the track if the trolley came by. Or you could place yourself in the head of the one person, looking down from the afterlife, and wondering if his death was preferable to the possible deaths of the others, or if his death had to do with him being the head of the union of railroad workers and his recent conflict with the management. Or perhaps the one man on the b  track, hated by one of the men on the a track, was murdered through the agency of the trolley driver, as the man on the first track sabotaged the brake and knew the instincts of the trolly driver. A true experiment follows just such a course – you vary the variables. The imaginative scenario is meant to provoke an “instinct”, but it is unclear why this is called an instinct rather than a judgment that depends on the circumstances not only of the imaginary scenario but of its telling. And that narrative plasticity is just the way to put in question the managerial suppositions of the imagined scenario. The philosopher not as king, but as a scribe with labor class sentiments.

Phillipa Foot was, in her youth, Iris Murdoch’s roommate. Murdoch knew Queneau, met him in 1946, and wrote letters to him in which she said various lovely things to him. According to Foot, she and Murdoch read Queneau’s Pierrot, Mon Ami in 1944. I wonder if she read the Exercises in Style?