Saturday, May 10, 2014

Date with your dog: a cat and some philosophy

You know its getting colder when your multi-species household puts differences aside and relocates to your lap (astute observers will note the woeful count on my pedometer...aiming for 10K steps a day but last night it was either a walk in the cold or sitting under a pile of animals. What would YOU choose???).
Here's a question for you which probably seems like it has nothing to do with anything remotely vetty. A tram is careering out of control. In its path are five workers. On a track to the right is one loner. You're the driver of the tram. Do you run over the five, or change course and sacrifice the individual? How about, instead of being the driver, you are the controller. By flicking a switch you can change the course of the tram so that it mows done the loner but spares the group. Does your answer change? What if you are watching this all from a bridge. You can save the workers by throwing a heavy object in front of the tram. You happen to be standing beside a very fat man. Do you throw him off the bridge?

Sounds like a silly situation, but it the tram or trolley problem was posed in the 1960s by British Philosopher Philippa Foot and debate rages on about the appropriate course of action. If you want to read a fantastically entertaining, light book which introduces major ethical theory painlessly, I recommend Thomas Cathcart's The Trolley Problem Or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?.

I'm giving lectures on veterinary ethics at the moment, and this book gives a very nice intro to theories like utilitarianism and deontology, and also covers major issues like moral intuition, evidence, psychological and emotional factors in decison making and even the impact of gender. All bundled into a crazy thought experiment. Despite the fact that I try to read as much philosophy as I can (for a vet), I learned quite a few things on the way.

AND I can now say that one can read it comfortably in a sitting whilst performing the role of a human hot water bottle for one sizeable cat and one small dog (just expect your lower limbs to be asleep when you're finished). 

What would you do about the trolley problem and why?