Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong [NOOK Book]

Overview

A runaway train is racing toward five men who are tied to the track. Unless the train is stopped, it will inevitably kill all five men. You are standing on a footbridge looking down on the unfolding disaster. However, a fat man, a stranger, is standing next to you: if you push him off the bridge, he will topple onto the line and, although he will die, his chunky body will stop the train, saving five lives. Would you kill the fat man?

The question may seem bizarre. But it's one ...

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Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong

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Overview

A runaway train is racing toward five men who are tied to the track. Unless the train is stopped, it will inevitably kill all five men. You are standing on a footbridge looking down on the unfolding disaster. However, a fat man, a stranger, is standing next to you: if you push him off the bridge, he will topple onto the line and, although he will die, his chunky body will stop the train, saving five lives. Would you kill the fat man?

The question may seem bizarre. But it's one variation of a puzzle that has baffled moral philosophers for almost half a century and that more recently has come to preoccupy neuroscientists, psychologists, and other thinkers as well. In this book, David Edmonds, coauthor of the best-selling Wittgenstein's Poker, tells the riveting story of why and how philosophers have struggled with this ethical dilemma, sometimes called the trolley problem. In the process, he provides an entertaining and informative tour through the history of moral philosophy. Most people feel it's wrong to kill the fat man. But why? After all, in taking one life you could save five. As Edmonds shows, answering the question is far more complex--and important--than it first appears. In fact, how we answer it tells us a great deal about right and wrong.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Sarah Bakewell
…jaunty, lucid and concise…David Edmonds…tells the story…plainly, yet with wit and panache.
Publishers Weekly
09/23/2013
Edmonds (coauthor of Wittgenstein’s Poker), a senior research associate at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, offers an accessible, humorous examination of how people approach complex ethical dilemmas. The “trolley problem,” originally designed by philosopher Philippa Foot, is a scenario in which, to save five people from an oncoming trolley, one must sacrifice another person. In the majority of these philosophical puzzles, the titular fat man must die at your hands (by being pushed off the bridge) to save several lives. This experiment tests people’s ethical decision making and interpretations of the results generally fall into two broad camps. Utilitarianism, conceived by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, suggests that choices should be made based on how much pleasure they produce and pain they avoid. For that reason, “it was always better to save more than fewer lives,” Edmonds notes. The other, deontology, made famous by Immanuel Kant, argues that people should never use others as a “means to an end.” Most people, according to Edmonds, are deontologists; they find it difficult to kill another human being even if it would save five. Here, Edmonds includes similar real-world situations, such as the 1894 Pullman strike, and a “ticking clock” German kidnapping case. Written for general readers, the book captures the complexities underpinning difficult decisions. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"A lucid account of a famous thought experiment in moral philosophy."—Editors' Choice, New York Times Book Review

"[J]aunty, lucid and concise. . . . In Would You Kill the Fat Man? David Edmonds . . . a seasoned philosopher, tells the story . . . with wit and panache."—Sarah Bakewell, New York Times Book Review

"[E]legant, lucid, and frequently funny. . . . Edmonds has written an entertaining, clear-headed, and fair-minded book."—Cass R. Sunstein, New York Review of Books

"[E]legantly written . . . Edmonds's book is especially valuable for the way in which it embeds his introduction to the trolley problem in a story of the social reality that produced it."—Hallvard Lillehammer, Times Literary Supplement

"David Edmonds's vastly more ambitious Would You Kill the Fat Man? has the cartoons—and just about everything else you could want in a thoughtful popular treatment of [the trolley problem]. A marvel of economy and learning worn lightly, Mr. Edmonds's book ranges pleasurably back to Aquinas and forward into the future of robots, who will of course need an ethics just as much as people do. Perhaps best of all, Mr. Edmonds recognizes that the origins of 'trolleyology' are at least as interesting as the many philosophical writings, academic exercises and parlor games that have sprung from the original trolley paper, published in 1967 by an English philosopher named Philippa Foot."—Daniel Akst, Wall Street Journal

"An accessible, humorous examination of how people approach complex ethical dilemmas. . . . Written for general readers, the book captures the complexities underpinning difficult decisions."—Publishers Weekly

"This is a rare treat—a serious, thought-provoking book on ethics that is also witty, funny, and entertaining. Not to be missed. . . . David Edmonds has taken the well-known trolley car problem and breathed new life into it, examining it from different perspectives and using it to shed light on the ethical theories of Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Rawls, Aristotle, and others. If you think philosophy has to be ponderous and difficult, you haven't read this book. . . . What's intoxicating about this book is that every time you think you know what you think, Edmonds tosses out a new element. . . . There's lots more to enjoy and learn from this book, a real gem and one of my new favorites."—Mark Willen, TalkingEthics.com

"[H]umans seem hard-wired to draw a distinction between a foreseeable side effect that sadly results from doing good (switching the tracks) and purposefully harming another, no matter how noble the cause (pushing the fat man off the bridge). Edmonds's exploration of why this is so is at the heart of his thoroughly delightful book."—Brian Bethune, Macleans

"[A] fascinating and important field. The light it throws on the moral institutions of human beings is its own reward, and this book will make its readers think."—Richard King, Australian

"This provocatively titled tract opens with a burst of drama that proves philosophy can be exciting."—David Wilson, South China Morning Post
"Edmonds enjoyably traces the ever-expanding sub-genre of trolleyology through debates about language, abortion, cannibals, war, and a complicated love quadrangle involving the novelist Iris Murdoch and the philosopher Philippa Foot, offering insights on ethics, politics, and sex along the way."—Katherine Mangu-Ward, Reason

"[A] fascinating book. Edmonds uses the problem of the fat man as a jumping-off point for a fairly wide-ranging exploration of morality and ethics, and he asks us to consider carefully how we would respond. It's a big subject packed into a relatively small book, and we leave the volume with perhaps more questions than answers, but isn't that the point here—to make us find our own answers?"—David Pitt, Booklist Online

"[I]mpressive. . . . [A] walking tour of moral philosophy organized around one of the most well-known thought experiments of the last half century. . . . By weaving together abstract principles, biographical sketches, historical examples, and trendy research in this just-so way, Edmonds has figured out how to illustrate the dimensions and consequences of moral decision-making without sacrificing entertainment value. . . . [A] carefully executed book."—Robert Herritt, Daily Beast

"Informative, accessible, engaging and witty, his book is a marvelous introduction to debates about right and wrong in philosophy, psychology, and neuro-science. . . . In the hands of a lucid explicator like David Edmonds, trolleyology is, at once, serious business (relevant, among others things, to preferences for drone strikes) and lots of fun."—Glenn Altschuler, Psychology Today

"This is a witty and informative discussion of the trolley problem in philosophical ethics by Oxford University researcher Edmonds. . . . Through a highly informed yet not technical discussion, readers get an excellent introduction to some main lines of 20th-century moral philosophy."—Choice

Library Journal
10/15/2013
Suppose we can save several lives by diverting a runaway trolley with five people in its path so it kills only one man (the fat man), or suppose that six men can survive in a lifeboat by eating a seventh. Most people, according to Edmonds's (senior research associate, Oxford's Uehiro Ctr. for Practical Ethics; BBC World Service; coauthor, Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers) reports/surveys, "save as many lives as possible." But if we can only stop the trolley by throwing a nearby fat man off a bridge, many people say "no." ("Fat Man" was the name of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki "to save lives.") The book explains that in some cases "intentions" matter; our primary intention is not to kill the man on whom we turn the trolley, but the fat man is different, as are the lifeboat cannibals. Edmonds traces these puzzles through the work of British philosophers Philippa Foot (1920–2010), Elizabeth Anscombe (1919–2001), and others, in a witty and thought-provoking tale. The author wouldn't kill the fat man, but he doesn't offer further remarks. While there are no solid answers, real-life cases have led us to prevention through social planning—safer trolley lines and better search and rescue. VERDICT A good read, necessarily ending in numbing thoughts.—Leslie Armour, Dominican Univ. Coll., Ottawa
Kirkus Reviews
2013-09-15
An investigation into how we make moral decisions. A trolley is hurtling down a track on which five people are tied to the rails. You are standing on a footbridge beside a fat man, a stranger to you. If you push him onto the tracks, he'll stop the trolley. Of course, he would die; but you would have saved five people. Do you kill the fat man? This thought problem, invented by philosopher Philippa Foot, is central to Edmonds' (co-author: Philosophy Bites Back, 2013, etc.) sprightly history of moral philosophy. The author is a master at distilling the work of some difficult writers, most importantly Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham, whose opposing views are still being debated. Kant believed in certain moral absolutes--murder is wrong, for example--that should never be breached. Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, believed that moral actions are those that cause the greatest good, ensuring pleasure and well-being to the most people. Presenting contemporary perspectives, Edmonds turns to philosophers such as John Rawls, Bernard Williams, and utilitarian Peter Singer; behavioral economists, such as Daniel Kahneman; psychologists, such as Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene; and neuroscientists, such as Antonio Damasio. How, these thinkers ask, do we distinguish "between negative and positive duties, between doing and allowing (killing and letting die), and between acting and omitting?" Moral decisions raise big questions: Do we, for example, have free will? Are we more charitable if we have just had a positive experience, such as a delicious lunch? Are we programmed genetically to act morally? Are we guided as much, or more, by intuition--a gut feeling--as by rational thinking? And finally, "do philosophers have any special authority over--any unique insight into--what's right and what's wrong?" As Edmonds amply and lucidly shows in this cogent book, moral questions have no easy answers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400848386
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/6/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: Course Book
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 158,163
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

David Edmonds is the author, with John Eidinow, of the best-selling "Wittgenstein’s Poker", as well as "Rousseau’s Dog" and "Bobby Fischer Goes to War". The cofounder of the popular Philosophy Bites podcast series, Edmonds is a senior research associate at the University of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and a multi-award-winning radio feature maker at the BBC. He holds a PhD in philosophy.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures xi
Prologue xiii
Acknowledgments xv
Part 1 Philosophy and the Trolley
Chapter 1 Churchill's Dilemma 3
Chapter 2 Spur of the Moment 8
Chapter 3 The Founding Mothers 13
Chapter 4 The Seventh Son of Count Landulf 26
Chapter 5 Fat Man, Loop, and Lazy Susan 35
Chapter 6 Ticking Clocks and the Sage of Königsberg 44
Chapter 7 Paving the Road to Hell 57
Chapter 8 Morals by Numbers 69
Part 2 Experiments and the Trolley
Chapter 9 Out of the Armchair 87
Chapter 10 It Just Feels Wrong 94
Chapter 11 Dudley's Choice and the Moral Instinct 108
Part 3 Mind and Brain and the Trolley
Chapter 12 The Irrational Animal 127
Chapter 13 Wrestling with Neurons 135
Chapter 14 Bionic Trolley 153
Part 4 The Trolley and Its Critics
Chapter 15 A Streetcar Named Backfire 169
Chapter 16 The Terminal 175
Appendix Ten Trolleys: A Rerun 183
Notes 193
Bibliography 205
Index 213
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