August 9, 2020debates with my daughtersphilosophypublic policy

Macabre thought experiments and moral compasses

I decided to put the trolley problem to the kids. All three readily said that they would let one person die if it saved two or more lives. But it got more complicated after that.

Deccan Herald This is from my Debates with My Daughters column that appeared in the Deccan Herald in 2019-20

Despite being banished from my living room-study to the far corner of a bedroom, everyone in the household can involuntarily hear me when I do webinars. One of my recent webinars must have coincided with the time they were all hanging out just outside my door, because that evening Fairy accused me of bullying” my students too much. When I asked her to be more specific, she told me that she overheard me interrogating my students on whether they would let a runaway train kill people sleeping on the railway track. So, the kids had overhead part of the discussion on the trolley problem.

Since 2018, I have been developing and teaching a course called Ethical Reasoning in Public Policy” as part of Takshashila’s graduate programme. It came out of a realisation that while students of public policy are taught economic reasoning at the better schools, few expose them to reasoning out the ethical dimensions. In our own student base, the fraction of students who have studied philosophy at college is minuscule. I myself am among those who didn’t have to take a single lesson in ethics or philosophy even at the master’s level at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. To fix this widespread shortcoming, I have come up with an Eightfold Path for Ethical Reasoning in public policy. It was this class that the kids had overheard.

The trolley problem in an archetypical moral dilemma used to peel the onion of ethical reasoning. And it can bring tears into your eyes. Devised by the British philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, it involves a runaway train that will kill people lying on the track in front of it. You can pull a lever to shift it to a different track, but there are people lying on that too. This creates the setting for a thought experiment. Would you allow one person to die if you could save two or more? The idea is to put people in the uncomfortable position of having to grapple with a difficult, inescapable moral choice as the first step in helping them learn to make well-reasoned ethical decisions. Since students initially try to cop out by saying things like I’ll apply the brakes” or I’ll make a loud noise and alert the people sleeping on the tracks”, I often have to compel them to confront the main issue. To the kids this sounds like bullying.

So I decided to put the trolley problem to the kids. All three readily said that they would let one person die if it saved two or more lives. This suggested that they are instinctively utilitarian, like Jeremy Bentham choosing the greatest good for the greatest number.” But Fairy said that it also depends on who the people were. The three agreed that they would save their friends and people they knew even if it meant more strangers would die. And what if there were friends on both tracks? Would they save closer friends or more friends? I think the discussion was inconclusive on this, and when I pressed with my questioning, Fairy said that this is exactly why she accused me of bullying.

Kenan Malik

There are many more Debates with my Daughters here

After introducing students to the trolley problem, I usually ask them to read Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass to examine the various ways we can approach the dilemma. I couldn’t assign this home work to my kids, but I’m hoping they’ll overhear the next few lessons on virtue, duty, dharma and utilitarian ethics.



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