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

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

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by David Edmonds

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"Lucid, witty, and beautifully written, this book is a pleasure to read. While providing an introduction to moral philosophy, it also presents engaging portraits of some of the greatest moral philosophers from Thomas Aquinas to the present day, and it makes the case for the relevance to ethics of the new experimental moral psychology. It is a tour de


"Lucid, witty, and beautifully written, this book is a pleasure to read. While providing an introduction to moral philosophy, it also presents engaging portraits of some of the greatest moral philosophers from Thomas Aquinas to the present day, and it makes the case for the relevance to ethics of the new experimental moral psychology. It is a tour de force."--Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen

"This is a splendid work. You shouldn't expect it to resolve all your trolley problems but you can look forward to a romping mix of fine humor, intriguing anecdote, and solid argument. It's a sheer joy to read."--Philip Pettit, Princeton University and Australian National University

"David Edmonds has a remarkable knack for weaving the threads of philosophical debates into an engaging story. Would You Kill the Fat Man? is a stimulating introduction to some key ethical issues and philosophers."--Peter Singer, author of The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty

"David Edmonds's new book, Would You Kill the Fat Man?, is both highly informative and a delight to read. Written in a clear, engaging, and witty style, it succeeds admirably in making various fascinating and important debates in philosophy and psychology accessible to a broad readership."--Jeff McMahan, Rutgers University

"This is a highly engaging book. David Edmonds's reflections are full of insight and he provides fascinating biographical background about the main players in the history of the trolley problem, in a style reminiscent of his very successful Wittgenstein's Poker."--Roger Crisp, University of Oxford

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.)
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.
From the Publisher
Honorable Mention for the 2015 PROSE Award in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2014

"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

"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 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

"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

"Rich in anecdote and example and wide-ranging in scope, Would You Kill the Fat Man?, is by turns fascinating and unsettling."—Gabriel Carlyle, Peace News

"David Edmonds bravely attempts to make possible the impossible, offering us this well-reviewed book on the sanctity of life. His story is enlivened with biographical details, anecdotes, curiosities, pictures and jokes. Short of setting passages to music it is hard to see what more could have been done. There is something here for everyone."—Christopher Miles Coope, Philosophical Quarterly

"Edmonds should be congratulated on his grand undertaking, and what I take to be his successful illumination of an important problem."—Joel Dittmer, Philosophy in Review

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Princeton University Press
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5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

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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Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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