Train of Thought: A Long- Standing Philosophical Experiment Is Put to the Test on the Streets

One of your humble narrator's earliest memories is of his mother flummoxing people — friends, family, fellow shoppers in the checkout line — with a particularly visceral thought experiment: Suppose you were buried up to your neck in a pile of excrement. And then someone tosses a bucket of puke at you.

Would you duck?

It turns out the real reason for asking questions like this was to witness victims haplessly grasping for mitigating factors before choosing a wretched option in a no-win scenario: How big is the bucket? Am I drunk? Is it human excrement? Is it mine?

In the end, friends, family, and fellow shoppers were left with just two choices: Do nothing and experience a horrible fate or do something and experience an arguably less horrible fate.

The Bucket and Pile Problem is not often overheard at universities and their neighboring supermarket checkout lines. But, for the past half-century, philosophers have been pondering a more dignified — if less entertaining — thought experiment: the Trolley Problem.

Suppose you're at the wheel of an out-of-control trolley. You can't stop. You can't slow down. And, if you do nothing, you'll plow into five people dawdling on the rails. But, if you take action, you can shunt the trolley onto a side track — and crush one person, who may or may not be acquainted with the other fools having a party on the tracks.

Would you do it?


The Trolley Problem has blossomed into one of the world's most ubiquitous thought experiments, and spawned countless arguments and counterarguments. While most people would, indeed, coolly divert a train onto a side track with a flip of a switch, dooming that single unfortunate soul, far fewer would physically shove a fat person into the way of an oncoming train in order to save five people standing on the rails. We have variant feelings about allowing someone to be killed as opposed to killing them — even if the end result is identical. As such, the subtitle of Thomas Cathcart's recent San Francisco-set book The Trolley Problem is Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?

Cathcart's tome is set in a San Francisco in which trolleys roll through California and Van Ness, and elected district attorneys see fit to prosecute for murder a woman hailed as a hero for diverting a train onto a less-populated track. In doing so, a hypothetical San Francisco jury (and Cathcart's readers) are bludgeoned with lengthy forays into the worldviews of Hume, Bentham, Kant, Nietzsche, and even St. Thomas Aquinas. (Johnnie Cochran's ideas are not mentioned; it'd be hard to find a suitable rhyme for "utilitarianism.")

But that's not the real problem: While the elements of human morality and even evolutionary biology exposed by the Trolley Problem are worth analyzing, the trolley itself quickly breaks down as a vehicle for advancing them. Far from highfalutin notions of Bentham or Kant, the idea of hurling an obese person off a rail bridge is something out of Bugs Bunny or Rube Goldberg. A thought experiment can't hew strictly to reality — but, when it diverts too abruptly, it becomes impossible to offer nuanced and serious answers to increasingly nonsensical questions. Attempting to gauge your deepest values based upon whether you'd knowingly hurl a fat person to certain death beneath the wheels of a public transit vehicle — for the greater good — veers into the absurd.

There's just no way that a fat person, by dint of their girth, is going to save lives or prevent injury on public transit.

For most of us, in fact, scenarios about piloting public transit vehicles into larger or smaller groups of pedestrians are hopelessly abstract. But not for everyone.

For Muni drivers, these concepts are strikingly concrete.


Talking to Muni drivers surrounded by passengers about their options regarding running over more or fewer passengers is a joy everyone should experience. In the end, your humble narrator reached out to more than a dozen current and former bus, trolley, train, and cable car drivers about how they would handle a real-world Trolley Problem.

It was an experience remarkably in line with decades-old memories of supermarket checkout lines, as the drivers haplessly grasped for mitigating factors before choosing a wretched option in a no-win scenario. When asked to imagine he's navigating a bus through the city, one driver interrupted: "Electric or diesel?" Another calmly rattled off the methods of stopping a bus sans brakes: pull the handbrake; open its doors; engage the Hill Holder; or hydraulically lower the front of the vehicle. Adhering to the "Smith Driving System," we are told, would reduce the instances of being forced to crush people by swerving into larger or smaller crowds. Honking the horn when within 10 feet of a person is de rigeur — which would require the hypothetical track loiterers to be disabled, hearing impaired, or both. Finally, says one 30-year driver, Muni would be loath to issue Trolley Problem-like policy statements, as "for liability reasons, they don't tell you anything about how you should kill this person as opposed to that person."

Also: "You should talk to a Caltrain driver. They hit people a lot."


Lectures on the nuances of a Hill Holder or the finer points of the Smith Driving System are their own reward. But some of the underpinnings of what makes humans tick — the point of thought experiments like the Trolley Problem — are also revealed by talking to Muni operators. Driver after driver recalled situations in which they or others could hit one person (or vehicle) who foolishly wandered into their path — but didn't. Instead, the driver slammed the brakes or swerved heavily, risking the lives and well-being of every last passenger on board, but sparing the sole wastrel who put everyone at risk. Why? "Because you just don't want to hit anyone. You just don't."
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3 comments
Brandan Podestá
Brandan Podestá

You jump off and save yourself. Unfortunately if you stay on and try to do something and fail at it, you'll end up in a lifelong lawsuit.

Santoki Jennifer Anastasi
Santoki Jennifer Anastasi

this philosophical conversation leads to the justification of killing (so to speak) when it becomes a moral issue on what is valued...A Buddhist *lay or monk* would kill someone--if they thought if meant..protecting x, y, and z..

 
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