on March 1, 2011 by BunnyHugger in Events, News, Comments (0)

‘Trolley Problem’ Simulated for Morality Day

In observance of Morality Day, the fourth Monday in February, the SED re-enacted a legendary ethics thought experiment, with several local residents becoming unwitting participants. The event billed itself as a scenic train ride past “moral landmarks,” but those boarding the double-decker trolley car for the tour soon found themselves in a convincing simulation of several “trolley problems.” Zeta, squirrel (a highly-ranked SED member), spent most of the trip inside the lower level of the trolley car, while Morticon, wallaby (head of the SED), went up top with the other riders, allegedly to serve as the tour guide. On board were Austin, coati; Azure, fox; Beltrami, balloon squirrel; BunnyHugger, devilbunny; Chitter, squirrel; Fuzzy, self-described marsh rabbit; Garrison, spaceroo; Jaxen, fox; Luaie, heron dragon; Skyler, ‘toon rabbit; Thomas, liquid metal polymorph; and Valleyminks, mink.

The trolley problem originated in the writings of recently-deceased philosopher Philippa Foot; the problem involves choosing whether to leave a runaway trolley on its present course, which will kill several people, or switch it to a second course, which will kill only one person (but make the switcher the direct cause of that person’s death). Several variations on this theme, designed to compare intuitions about different facets of moral choice, have been explored by subsequent thinkers.

Riders on the SED train were unaware that the trip was merely a simulation, and found themselves forced to make extremely difficult choices in the course of the trip. The first sign of trouble came just a few minutes into the trip, when the trolley approached a fork. BunnyHugger noticed people tied to the track and shouted to Zeta to stop the trolley, but through an intercom she stated that she would not, as it would “ruin the educative nature of the tour.” If the trolley stayed on the path it was on, five people tied to the tracks would be run over. A switch on top of the trolley would allow it to be switched onto the second fork, but one person, identified by those on board as Sora, SED soldier, was tied there, and would be killed instead.

Nearly everyone present favored switching the train to Sora’s track. Chitter attempted to move to the switch, but was held back by BunnyHugger, who stated, “No!  If we switch then it’s our fault if she’s killed!  If we leave it alone then it’s terrible but it’s not our fault!” Others seemed unconvinced by this reasoning, including Azure, who said, “I don’t follow. We chose inaction which led to five people dying. We can also choose action which leads to one person dying.” Fuzzy advocated finding a way to kill all six if possible, saying, “I don’t want to seem prejudiced.” Fuzzy, a devout worshipper of death-goddess Inle, continued throughout the evening to advise whatever course of action would be likely to kill the most people.

At the last moment before the train reached the junction, as no one else stepped up to do the deed, Beltrami threw the switch, after which she was visibly highly distressed. Moments later Sora was apparently killed.

The second problem encountered involved another fork in the tracks, this time with coolers on the current track, and Aina 72 tied to the other. Zeta informed the riders that the coolers were full of organs en route to SpinDizzy General Hospital and that without them, five patients waiting for transplants would die. This time opinion was more divided. BunnyHugger, though continuing to favor inaction, claimed that the situation was morally identical to the previous one. Jaxen replied, “It’s not the same situation, BunnyHugger.  There’s a live person on one track.  There’s no one on the other.” Ultimately, Skyler took action, switching the train to the track on which Aina 72 was bound, apparently killing her. Morticon, with tears in his eyes, demanded, “Skyler? How could you?” Skyler replied that it wasn’t easy for him and looked very angry.

The riders were not surprised when they saw five people tied to the tracks again, past another fork in the distance. They were puzzled when it appeared that the alternate fork was unoccupied. Zeta called through the intercom for Azure to approach the speaker. He did so, and a paralytic (and, according to Zeta, anaesthetic) gas was emitted from the speaker, incapacitating him.  Then she engaged a locking mechanism that would prevent the train from being switched to the unoccupied track. Zeta stated, “Of course, the locking mechanism could be disabled if one were to gum up the workings with, say, a squirrel. Or a three inch fox.” The former apparently referred to Chitter, and the latter to Azure. “Nice that she called me out specifically,” Chitter said, and Zeta replied, “I was curious if you were feeling especially noble, Chitter.” “Squirrels in glass dreys,” he responded.

Despite the apparent similarity with the previous cases of killing one to save five, everyone was reluctant to act. Finally, seconds before reaching the junction, Luaie said, “I’ll accept responsibility on this one, if nobody else wants to make a decision.  I vote for inaction.” The trolley collided with the five people, seemingly scattering bodies behind it. Luaie admitted that his decision may have been “emotional” rather than ethically consistent. BunnyHugger, however, argued that it was the correct choice because in killing Azure “…we make the wrongdoing our own, but if we leave the train on course the wrongdoing is Zeta’s alone.” Afterward, BunnyHugger seemed emotionally distressed, tugging at one ear and stuttering.

A fourth and final junction approached, and once again the train was on course to hit five people. Zeta engaged the locking mechanism so that it could not be switched to the second, unoccupied, track. She stated, “The informative nature of this last stage deals with your observed reaction to inevitability. There is no solution.” She emerged from a window to join the riders on the upper deck, and perched on top of the lever. Azure attempted to sacrifice himself to save the five on the tracks by putting himself in the locking mechanism, but Zeta used gas to paralyze him again so he could not. “Your self-sacrifice is less informative then the reaction of others to tragedy,” she explained.

Chitter abruptly leapt at Zeta, but BunnyHugger quickly stepped on his tail to restrain him. “Someone help me!  Grab Zeta!”, he yelled. “Throw in Zeta, she’s the one who’s killed all those people!” Zeta said, “Interesting. But you know me as well as Azure?” Chitter responded, “It makes a difference and you know it does; it makes a difference that you’re the one who did all this.” BunnyHugger, meanwhile, began singing a line from the folk song “Barbara Allen”: “And the only words to him she said: young man I think you’re dyin’.”

As this commotion was occurring, Beltrami took out her operator palette and aimed it at herself, causing herself to shrink. She then climbed into the mechanism, accompanied by a popping sound and a few shreds of vinyl flying out. The other riders were shocked, except for Zeta, who merely took notes. BunnyHugger, evidently reduced to irrationality, continued singing: “As she was walking o’er the fields, she heard the death bell knellin’. And every stroke it seemed to say, ‘hard-hearted Barbara Allen!'”

Chitter furiously shouted, “You white rat, you killed a slew of people but it’s personal because you broke BunnyHugger.” As he said it, the trolley “returned” to Fluffhaven Park, and the holographic simulation faded, revealing that the trolley was only a stationary car on hydrualics. Chitter looked around and said, “OK, you actually just broke BunnyHugger, but it’s still personal.” Beltrami emerged unharmed from inside the trolley car.

Reactions to the revelation of the ruse varied. Chitter continued to be furious, others were relieved, and Fuzzy seemed disappointed, saying, “So, hold on. We didn’t kill anyone? But if we don’t kill enough people on Morality Day, the sun won’t rise.”

Zeta and Morticon quickly fled before the riders’ upset could turn against them.

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