Monday, November 04, 2013


Until last week, I had never heard of the trolley experiment or “The Cold Equations.” Now I run into them everywhere.

I just read Craig Johnson’s Longmire novella Spirit of Steamboat which offers the hardboiled hero’s answer to the trolley question.

His mouth stiffened. “No way. I’ve been up there and this is pure trolleyism.”


“Trolleyism. If you had this little girl on a track with a trolley bearing down on her and you could throw a switch that sent the car onto another track with five other people on itwould you throw that lever?”

“It’s not the same.”

His eyes studied the padded surface of the plane’s interior. “You’re right, because you’re not even going to be able to save the girl. You’re all going to die up there.” His eyes came back to mine. “You’re sacrificing five people’s lives for the possibility of saving one girl…”

“It’s not a question of numbers, it’s a question of what you have to do, what you have to live with if you don’t.” I thought about the book in my pocket, the advice that the Ghost of Christmas Present gives Scrooge on decreasing the surplus population, and mumbled to myself: “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless… [than] this poor … child…”
I am suspicious of these kind of thought “experiments” for the reason Robert Jervis noted when looking at the utility of game theory in international relations:

It is not a good sign when prisoners confronted by a District Attorney do not behave as the prisoner dilemma model would lead us to expect.


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