Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Phillippa Foot

Phillippa Foot passed away a couple of weeks ago at the ripe old age of 90. If her name doesn’t leap to mind, and if you haven’t read her book, Natural Goodness, or Vice and Virtue, her biography, well, you’re excused. There’s not that much room left nowadays for philosophers, and she spent the better part of her life exploring issues of virtue and ethics. She went back to the roots of Aristotelian thought which considered not just the consequences of an action, but the character of the person performing the action. The quote of hers I’ve always liked best is, “You ask a philosopher a question and after he or she has talked for a bit, you don’t understand your question any more.”

She is perhaps most well known for her exploration of “the trolley problem.” You are the driver of a runaway trolley that will kill five people if you do not switch tracks. If you do, however, the trolley will hit one person who will die. Judith Jarvis Thomson, an American moral philosopher and metaphysician, took this concept and spun it around. As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Another, more relevant example: if you had the opportunity to come up with a cancer vaccine that would save millions of lives, would you be ready to sacrifice hundreds of lives to develop it?

These are fine moral distinctions that can argued until we’re all blue in the face and die of asphyxiation. But they’re important. They stand at the crux of what we call societal thinking and behavior. Such questions are at the basis of any war, and most conflicts. What are we willing to sacrifice to achieve a beneficial end, and how much of such sacrifices can we stand before we decide our actions are no longer tolerable by society.

And here’s another thought: If we do not interfere with the runaway trolley, whatever happens, we can’t be blamed. The deaths of the five victims are an act of God. If, however, we manage to change the trolley’s direction so that it kills only on person, that death is our responsibility—it would not have occurred had we not acted.
Personally, I hope Phillippa Foot is up there talking with whoever is making the big and small decisions, and asking him for clarifications on a number of ethical issues. And I hope there are some answers for her.

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