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


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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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
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

"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

"Edmonds does an outstanding job of introducing the reader to the historical emergence and subsequent development of trolleyology, explaining its significance for both moral philosophy and moral psychology, and responding to a number of substantive criticisms of the field. Edmonds's expertise is clearly on display throughout the text, and he largely succeeds in producing a work that is informative and sophisticated without being overly technical."--Eli Weber, Metapsychology

Library Journal
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
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: 288,964
  • 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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