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Two versions of the trolley problem elicit similar responses everywhere

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The trolley problem is a staple of discussions about ethics. The basic version is very simple: a trolley is barreling down a track toward a group of five people who remain blissfully unaware of their impending doom. You stand next to a switch that could redirect the trolley to another track, where it will kill a smaller number of people. Do you throw the switch?

Most people take a very utilitarian view of things and say they’d throw the switch. But there are plenty of variations on the trolley problem that suggest there’s more than pure utilitarianism involved in the decision-making. Changing the number of people on the alternate track or changing how directly involved you have to be in killing someone will both shift the frequency of different answers—at least in industrialized societies.

Documentation of the response to the trolley problem in other cultures has been relatively spotty, raising the question of whether we can reveal any ethical universals using it. So an enormous team of researchers decided to find out, surveying over 27,000 people in 45 countries. Although the work didn’t exactly go as planned, it did provide a hint of at least one ethical tendency that’s pretty universal across cultures.

One problem, many versions

Basic versions of the trolley problem are just as described above, with people asked whether to pull a switch or not, with the number of people dead depending on their decision. But there are nearly infinite variants on the basic outline. In the studies done here, the researchers used the standard version, and also two variants. In one case, they put the participants in charge of a speedboat and had them choose which of two groups of swimmers to save from drowning. While the practical results are the same—one group is saved, the other dies—this shifts the focus onto saving people.

In another version used in the study, there was no switch; instead, participants had to throw someone off a bridge and in front of the trolley to get it to derail and save others.

This latter case reveals a bit about moral decision-making in industrialized societies. Even when the deaths averted and caused are identical, people in industrialized societies tended to be more hesitant to physically throw someone under the trolley than they were to pull a switch. Researchers have labelled this an aversion to “personal force,” and one of the questions here was whether this same behavior was seen in non-industrialized societies.

As noted above, the researchers had a large population of participants to sort this out, divided into the global East, South, and West. But that turned out to be more of a problem than it might appear.

The researchers had pre-registered their study plan with a set of criteria that would lead to participants being excluded from the analysis portion of things. These included indications of a loss of attention while people filled in online forms or being aware of the trolley test. Unfortunately, that covered nearly all of their participants—over 80 percent of them. As a result, if they did the analysis according to their original plan, they had very few participants, and most of the results weren’t statistically significant.

In addition, there were some indications that participants found the whole concept of the trolley problem a bit confusing and had trouble understanding the questions. This was more common in non-Western societies.

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