Reviewed by Amy Taylor
With a title like ‘Would you Kill the Fat Man?’, no philosophical sub-title can put me off wanting to read more about how or why I might be in a position to do so.
It turns out that it is a central scenario in the so-called ‘Trolley Problem’. The dilemma is this: if a runaway trolley (the American tram variety, rather than the supermarket type) is hurtling towards 5 people who are tied to a track and you are standing on a footbridge observing this imminent disaster, coincidentally next to a plump stranger: would you push this man off the bridge knowing that it would prevent the death of the 5 potential victims even though it would inevitably end the fat man’s life as a result? It is a bizarre scenario that initially appears to be quite straightforward, but delve down into the deep-seated reasons behind your reactions, and you have a book on your hands.
David Edmonds’ book about Trolleyology explores the moral implications of your answer to this question in a whirlwind tour of philosophical thought centering on this type of problem, from Plato and Aristotle to modern times. The short, punchy chapters, introduced with witty quotations, form charming bite-size chunks of information to ponder. And there are 10 cartoon illustrations at the back. What’s not to love?
Edmonds writes with clarity without being patronizing and makes his subject matter approachable without dumbing it down, so overall it is a good novice-friendly read. It is interesting to delve into questions about whether we have free will or are innately good, for instance, as well as finding out the true differences between such already nuanced ideas of ‘intention’, ‘foreseen effect’, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ duties, and what this all means in terms of our morality.
To explore these themes, Edmonds bandies about the theories of several tiers of philosophers, from the transcendent heavyweights Plato and Aristotle, to 'classroom favourites' like Bentham & J.S. Mill, Bertrand Russell, Hobbes, Hume, Kant et al. But the names of some of the principle philosophers mentioned such as the (semi-reluctant) queen of trolleyology Philippa Foot, her sparring partner and sometime friend Elizabeth Anscombe, later pioneer of neuroethics Joshua Greene and experimental psychologist Jonathan Haidt will probably be unknown to most readers (as will the author’s references to Wittgenstein, unless of course you have already read Wittgenstein’s Poker, which Edmonds co-wrote.)
It is nice to have some biographical detail about these philosophers to contextualize their contributions (apart from perhaps Bentham’s grotesque introduction as a stuffed corpse housed in a glass box off Gower Street, London). There are also some unique little personal insights: apparently Anscombe ‘had a mellifluous voice, like a clarinet, which she occasionally deployed to be eye-wateringly rude’ and her tangled relationship with Foot and Iris Murdoch also makes for an interesting anecdote. There is also a little epilogue for each of the main protagonists which adds a pleasing sense of completeness, even if it looks a bit like an afterthought. Occasionally, though, the characters and their thoughts are quite difficult to disentangle from one another: they are referenced in several places along with phrases like ‘more on this later’, which puts the onus on the reader to make healthy and copious use of the index (which is, incidentally, very good.)
The text is interspersed with real-life tales that are edifying as well as entertaining: amongst these is a fascinating ethical dilemma about conjoined twins and a jolly tale of cannibalism on the high seas featuring a certain Richard Parker, whom some readers might recognize from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. These are some of the most engaging sections of the book, a refreshing look at how some of these abstract, often complex and subtle, philosophical ideas fit into reality. Edmonds clearly understands that the majority of his readers will need to be able to relate this to their own lives, and consequently there are plenty of satisfying tidbits from the mystifying depths of history on offer here. Both sides of the Atlantic are represented, from Winston Churchill’s ‘doodlebug dilemma’ to Grover Cleveland’s ‘Pullman problem’.
Edmonds carefully weaves his way through the complexities of various scenarios within trolleyology, from the restrictive principles of utilitarianism to Kant’s deontology and Henry Sedgwick’s ‘esoteric morality’. But the fact that we don’t want the fact man to die, merely to obstruct the train, is surely better than wanting him to die – that is what the ‘extra push’ and ‘two loop’ problems are meant to illustrate. Physically pushing the fat man involves battery, which many people are naturally averse to – so opening a trap door with the fat man on top seems easier for our consciences to cope with.
In the final section, Edmonds reveals some trends and statistics gathered from the Harvard and BBC online surveys: the BBC revealed that 1 in 4 people would push the fat man. Added to this, women are more generally more harm averse, as are hospital workers, religious people and conservatives. But there isn’t much difference in the reaction between income and education levels – which presumably implies instinct plays a greater part in decision-making than intellectual pondering as it takes less time. Another fun fact is that behaviour seems to be affected more than you might think by food, pleasant smells, cleanliness and more. Reason seems to take a back seat in decision-making, and people are less likely to push the fat man when they’re in a good mood or have had a good feed, it seems. People are also, interestingly, far more likely to push an upper class white man over the bridge than a working-class black man, and they are far more likely to have a much more utilitarian mindset when it comes to animals taking the place of humans in the scenarios.
Other (more obvious) revelations include the fact that people are more likely to help with immediate problems than ‘distant’ ones (the examples used are saving a drowning little girl from a pond and helping with third world poverty) and we are more likely to save people we know than complete strangers, even though they might number less. Edmonds concludes that ‘some of our moral instincts are inappropriate for our age, an era in which people live in large, anonymous groups in an interconnected world’ – a plea for more universal generosity which perhaps ignores some of our natural instincts and practicalities.
On occasions, Edmonds’ thoughts become a bit scattered and repetitive, especially in the later chapters when he’s trying to pull together some conclusions which are rather difficult to discern. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that he includes a large section about trolleyology’s detractors: ‘The indictment against trolleyology is that all its puzzles are improbable and, therefore, all of them are useless... [even] Philippa Foot would have been dismayed by the burgeoning sub-genre that she spawned.’ Of course, it would be good to have clarity for moral reasoning, but is trying to painstakingly adjust every single variable in artificial scenarios the best way to go about it? As Edmonds explains, we will always have more options than X or Y and there are always a myriad of contributing factors that affect our decisions.
That isn’t to say that trolleyology isn’t useful in interpreting how our universal morality operates – but the fact that there are always more nuances to add to scenarios surely ensures the survival of the research structured around trolleyology (‘a hypothetical puzzle, endlessly re-examined’), which of course must be Edmonds’ ultimate aim given the nature of his current research. Yes, there is a slight sense of ulterior motive behind this book, but it doesn’t really matter because it is still an entertaining and approachable read in its own right.
Edmonds even toys with the notion that perhaps trolleyology is ‘too much fun’ – this might be going too far, but in some senses he is right. The artificial, almost toy-like, scenarios forming the basis of trolleyology are fun: they would especially appeal to those who enjoy stereotypes, physical comedy and enjoy taking all these ubiquitous personality tests.
So: what’s the answer? Edmonds concludes the book by saying that the fat man is safe from him in any case. However, I think I will carefully summon my inner ‘Benthamite utilitarianism’ and vote to push the obese specimen over that bridge — if only because it’ll skew the trolleyologists’ results a little.