Posted in Philosophy

Trolley Problem

Imagine the following situation. There are five people working on a railroad. Unfortunately, a train is travelling down the track at the same time. Neither the conductor nor the workers are aware that a crash is coming. You are the only person that knows. Next to you is a switch that will change the tracks so that the train diverts and misses the five people, but the second track also has one worker working on it. Here is the dilemma: do you pull the switch to save the five workers at the cost of the one worker?

This is the famous trolley problem, a thoroughly discussed ethical dilemma that explores the ethics of utilitarianism. Is it morally right to sacrifice the life of one person to save the lives of five people? Mathematically this makes sense, as you are essentially saving four people through your action.

But now consider a similar yet different situation. Instead of a switch, this time you are standing next to a very large man on a bridge overhanging the tracks. The only way to save the five people on the track is to push the large man on to the tracks, slowing the train down and giving the five workers enough time to escape harm.

Mathematically, the end result is the same: one person is sacrificed so that five people live. But when presented the two scenarios, the majority of people will say they would not push the large man, even though they were willing to pull the switch in the first situation.

This is a complex ethical problem as the rational, logical choice may not necessarily be the “morally right” choice. It directly conflicts with our natural and cultural belief that we should not kill members of our own species. The slippery slope argument also applies here, as if you can argue that killing one man to save five people is correct, then what’s to stop us from sacrificing one person to harvest their organs to save the lives of many people awaiting organ transplants?

Although the original problem was developed to explore the morality of utilitarianism, we are now living in a time where the trolley problem has become an actual logistical issue. The issue lies with self-driving cars. Self-driving cars should theoretically dramatically reduce road traffic accidents as it removes human error such as drink driving and inattention as the cause of crashes. However, if a situation was to arise where the car senses that it is about to collide into a pedestrian (or five), what does it do? Does it swerve to avoid the pedestrian and put the passengers’ lives at risk? How does a computer decide what the morally right choice is?

A computer is designed to make calculated, rational decisions. Mathematically, it may deem that swerving and crashing into a tree – endangering the life of its sole passenger – is the logical choice to prevent hitting five people on the road. But then who would buy a car that willingly sacrifices its passengers’ lives for the greater good?

Technology is advancing at a staggering rate and we are facing ethical dilemmas that we have never had to consider before. It is our job to discuss and explore these issues ahead of time so that we can prevent irresponsible use of technology in the future.

Posted in Philosophy

Ticking Bomb Scenario

Imagine a situation where a terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in a major city and has it rigged to explode in 24 hours. Only he knows where the bomb is and how to disarm it. The authorities successfully capture him but he is not volunteering the information after hours of interrogation. Millions of lives are at stake because one man hides behind his rights and the control of his tongue. In such a scenario, is it morally justified to torture him until he gives away the information needed to prevent a catastrophe?

Torture is an unacceptable violation of a human being’s most fundamental rights. By inflicting pain and terror, the torturer systematically destroys the victim – physically, emotionally and psychologically. However, in the above scenario, not torturing the bomber will result in the death of countless innocent lives. Is the right of a murderous madman equivalent to a million other human beings? When asked this, the majority of people would answer that yes, in this scenario, torture can be justified.

However, this scenario is a hypothetical philosophical model to outline the argument that torture may be morally justified in certain situations. It is not a way to prove that governments should legally use torture as part of interrogations. The ticking bomb scenario has many weaknesses, such as the fact that such a scenario where all the elements line up so perfectly is highly unlikely to arise. But even so, it may be used as a base of a slippery slope, with people arguing that if a million lives can be saved by torturing an individual, what about a thousand lives? A hundred lives? Or even five lives? What if we have a legal system in place where a judge must issue a warrant after assessing the scenario? Then surely an argument can be made that in certain scenarios, there is no time for this process and lives are at stake. Ultimately, the legalisation of torture is an extremely dangerous slippery slope that can facilitate the violation of human rights with ease.

An alternative system is the so called Dirty Harry case. In this case, torture is still illegal, but a single individual in law enforcement decides to go rogue and takes the matter into his own hands. Because he decides to torture the suspect as an individual, not as part of an institution, he will be committing a crime for which he will be tried in the future. If the jury finds him guilty, he will be punished by being imprisoned. Therefore, the “Dirty Harry” must weigh the potential benefit of torturing the suspect (i.e. saving lives) versus the potential risks (i.e. going to prison), giving him incentive to make a more careful decision.

(Source: Check out this Reddit comment for a more elaborate explanation with references)

Posted in Philosophy

Wolf And Sheep Problem

If two wolves and one sheep vote on what to eat, it could be called a democracy. However, the result would obviously be against the best interest of the sheep. This problem, known as the wolf/sheep problem, is caused by the misunderstanding of the principles of democracy and is abused by many countries. Under a democratic system, a government is able to steal from the minority groups and redistribute it to the majority. Can such a system be called democratic?

The correct definition for democracy is: “a system where the people have power and are able to voice their individual opinions”. But if the minority opinion is silenced and ignored by the majority as described above, then that goes against the true spirit of democracy. Many confuse democracy with the principle of majority rule, which is only one method used to integrate the people’s opinions with politics. Ergo, the government has a duty to protect the voice and rights of the minority. The three most important of such rights are the freedom of political expression, speech and the press.

A democratic government should be a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Unfortunately, so many governments violate the meaning of democracy just as the two wolves prey on the sheep.

A wise person would not leave their fate in the hands of such a system.