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Spider Man’s Choice

An explainer about Philosophy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 4, Spider Man discovers the Trolley Problem.

With great power comes great confusion. In Sam Raimi’s 2002 film, Spider-Man, our eponymous hero is presented a tough choice by Green Goblin, who sets both Mary Jane and a bus full of kids plunging into the sea. Spider Man can save only one. Who will he choose: the lone woman or the many children?

This reminded me of a famous though experiment in Ethics called the Trolley Problem. Here’s one way to state the problem:

You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options:

1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.

2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option?

There is no right or wrong answer to this problem. Instead, it demonstrates different ways of thinking about ethical problems. A Utilitarian, for example, might hold that you must always pull the lever, since five lives are more important than one. A Deontological view, on the other hand, could be that it is wrong to kill, period, and so you must not pull the lever. An Epistemic counter to the Utilitarian argument can be that real life problems are more complex than this, we can never know the actual consequences of pulling the metaphorical lever, and so we should not play God. And so on.

There are variations of the Trolley Problem that tease our moral intuitions. What if instead of pulling a lever, you have to push a fat guy onto the tracks to save five people further down the line? The logic for pushing him is the same as that for pulling the lever, but many who would pull the lever hesitate to push the fat guy. It is worth asking why.

Here’s another example of the Trolley Problem:

Imagine you are a doctor and you have five patients who all need transplants in order to live. Two each require one lung, another two each require a kidney and the fifth needs a heart.

In the next ward is another individual recovering from a broken leg. But other than their knitting bones, they’re perfectly healthy. So, would you kill the healthy patient and harvest their organs to save five others?

It’s the same choice: one life versus five, and you have to actively do something to save the four people. What do you do?

Until recently, the Trolley Problem was useful only as a thought experiment meant to think about ethical problems, and to test moral intuitions. But it has recently gained practical value because of self-driving cars. Consider this situation: you are in a self-driving car, and five pedestrians suddenly get in front of the car when it is travelling at high speed. It can either continue on its path, killing all five; or it can swerve and kill the one occupant inside the car, which is you. One life; or five. What should the car do?

This is not a thought experiment, because all actions of an autonomous car can be programmed. What should the car be programmed to do? Would anyone buy an autonomous car that was not programmed to place the occupant’s life above all else?

Taking this further, if the car finds a young boy in front of it, but swerving would kill an old man, should it place a value on youth and swerve? What if you throw a pregnant woman into the mix?

The only amusing part of this is that engineers are now being forced to think about ethical issues. Fun.

As for Spider Man, well, you know what happened even if you did not watch Raimi’s film: he saved both Mary Jane and the bus full of kids. His situation also wasn’t quite the Trolley Problem — he was emotionally involved with one party, which could have biased his choice if he had to make one. (One version of The Trolley Problem involves the child of the chap at the lever.)

Real life, sadly, is not like superhero films, and we are often confronted with hard choices. With great power comes great responsibility.

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About the author

Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. A journalist for a decade-and-a-half, he won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007 and 2015. He writes the blog India Uncut, and hosts the podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. He is the editor of Pragati.