S1E2-A:  Classical Ethical Dilemmas

A brief explanation of what are classical ethical dilemmas and which ones will be used to display how to use the DREMSI Methodology.

Imagine you are on your brand-new car, a Tesla, the famous electric car company. You have the car in autopilot as you are doing a road trip in Europe, driving from Berlin all the way to lake garda in the north of Italy. Is a sunny day and everything seems under control. At one point, the car screen shows there is a problem, alarm bells ring and you must act quickly. The car has identified five cyclists in the middle of the road and a collision is imminent. Because of the heavy regulation, the AI cannot make the decision and it asks you to select two options:

  • Option one is to avoid collision by steering to the right side, with a high probability of killing one person, and putting your life in danger
  • Option two is to avoid collision by steering to the left side, with a high probability of killing 4 people, but with a lower risk for your life.

What do you do?  And more importantly, why?

These kinds of thought exercises have become widely popular within ethical research, with the most iconic one being the trolley problem, the one where you are the conductor of a train instead of the driver of a self-driving car. Because these kinds of exercises are commonly present in ethical courses or ethical books I refer to them as classical ethical dilemmas. According to Wikipedia, ethical dilemmas became popular in the 1960s 70s thanks to the work of Philippa Foot. However, the usage of scenarios to visualize an ethical theory has been a common practice trough history:

  • There are dilemmas in the analects of Confucius, where we see that a son should remain loyal to the father in front of the police, despite the father stealing sheep.
  • There are dilemmas in the bible, where we see that Abraham should sacrifice his son Isaac, despite the son being pure and innocent.
  • There are dilemmas in the Kantian writings, where we see one should always tell the truth, even if the other party is a murderer asking for the location of a victim.

Ethical exercises are essential to visualize how a theory works and in a similar line of thought, I plan to use simple dilemmas to illustrate the DREMSI theory operates by moving from theory to action.

I am not a big fan of classical dilemmas. In my eyes they are mere children’s games, the situations tend to be exaggerated, with no applicability to our lives. I instead prefer complex real-life issues

  • should a husband tell his wife about his one-night stand?
  • should a company reduce the salary of the CEO to reduce inequality?
  • should the government ban women wearing burka?

These are the kind of questions I want to solve. Problems that are complex and multidimensional. Problems that one can relate to. Problems that if we solve, we can push the solution to be implemented.

Even if I am not a fan of classical ethical dilemmas, I admit that they are a good starting point, a good preparation before one can tackle real-life situations. Because of this, I plan to use classical dilemmas to highlight the key features of DREMSI as it becomes easy to visualize the difference against the other ethical schools. This episode will work as an appetizer, a little taste of the methodology that later on in episodes 6,7 and 8 will be used to address real-life dilemmas.

The plan for this episode is to analyze an ethical riddle composed of three dilemmas, the trolley dilemma, the bridge dilemma, and the doctor dilemma. The progression of this episode is as follows:

  • First, I’ll introduce the ethical riddle, what is so special about the three ethical dilemmas and what research has been done on them.
  • Then I’ll deep dive into judging the possible actions under the DREMSI umbrella, providing a judgment and recommendations for decisions
  • Last, I’ll finalize with conclusions and remarks on the outcome, especially to address the uncomfortable parts of this methodology.

The Ethical riddle.

I call it a riddle, because we are talking about three ethical dilemmas that share very common characteristics and one is able to solve each of them individually, however, it becomes very problematic to use a consistent logic to solve them all. In many instances the individual responses contradict each other and applying a single logic to all seems to be far from reality. It is then the perfect candidate to put DREMSI to test.

Let me introduce you to the three dilemmas

The first dilemma is the famous trolley dilemma. You probably have heard it many times, but ill summarize it briefly. You are the conductor on a train in charge of managing the control system and direction. As the train navigates toward its destination you see five workers doing works on the tracks. In the current set-up, if they don’t move you will run them over. After sending them signals, they are so immersed in their work that a collision seems unavoidable. At this time you notice you can change tracks and take a different direction but of course to make things complicated, in the new track there is one single worker, doing as well some repairments. Given the speed of the train, if you decide to change tracks, you will unavoidably kill the worker.

And so the dilemma can be presented as: “Should you, the conductor, let the train continue its path and kill five workers, or should the conductor change tracks, killing one worker but saving the lives of the five workers from the other track”

The second dilemma is a variation of the previous one and is called the bridge dilemma, It is officially called “bridge step”, but I think the bridge dilemma is simpler. The story is very similar to the trolley one, however in this version you are not the conductor of the train, but you are an external person, a person simply walking on a bridge, on which the train goes under. I’m not sure what is the right terminology for this bridge but is one that lets individuals cross from one side of the tracks to the other. While you are walking on this bridge, you notice the train is going too fast and it will kill five workers doing works at the track. Next to you, there is a large, voluminous person, in other words, a very fat person. Is so fat that theoretically, if you push this person it will stop the train saving the lives of five people (sometimes I wonder how people come up with these examples, the level of imagination!).

So, the dilemma can be presented as: “Should you, the external walker, let the train continue its path and kill five workers, or should you push the large person to the tracks, killing him and saving the lives of the five workers from the other track”

The third and last dilemma is in a different world but with the same kind of question, it is called the Doctor dilemma. In this scenario one is a surgeon in a hospital and you have five patients: each of them in need of a different organ, each of them will die without that organ and each of them relies on you finding them an organ to survive. Unfortunately, no organs are available. Just when you thought you will lose them all, a young traveller comes in for a routine check-up as it had a little fever and decided to come and check what it was. In the course of doing the check-up, the doctor discovers that the traveller’s organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients, giving him an uncanny opportunity.

And so the dilemma can be presented as: Should you, the doctor, let the five patients that need an organ die, or should you take the life of the traveller, harvest its organs and save the lives of the five patients.”

As we can see, from one perspective the dilemma is quite similar in all cases,  should you take one life in exchange for five. We change the settings here and there but we are always in the uncomfortable position to justify the death of someone to choose who deserves to live.

Public opinion on the Classics

Given that these dilemmas are quite famous within the science and philosophy community we have some research on what people think are the right choices.

A survey done by the BBC in 2006, with 65,000 participants found that roughly 80% of the people agree to change the train and save five lives in the trolley dilemma,  and only 20% agreed to push the fat person in the bridge dilemma.

A paper from 2009 called “what do philosophers believe?” – where they surveyed almost 2000 philosophers shows that 70% of professional philosophers would sacrifice the one individual to save five lives in the trolley dilemma

More recently, a study called “The large Moral-Machine Survey” done by the Max Plank Institute in 2017 got answers from 70,000 people from 42 countries found out that common in all countries was that people would sacrifice one life to save five in the trolley, with an average of 80%. Only a few people would choose this option in the bridge case, with values ranging from 20 to 50% of the audience, depending on the country.

From these kinds of surveys, we can see that even if there are cultural and individual variations in the answer, the majority of the people tend to agree: (1) to save the workers people in the trolley dilemma, (2) to not push the fat man in the bridge dilemma, (3) and to not take the organs of the traveller in the doctor dilemma. I’m guessing most of the audience will likely agree with these views.

All these surveys give us an interesting perspective on how we think about dilemmas, how we decide what to do and how we justify our actions. However, what I am really interested to answer is, what is the logic behind these results? can we have a criterion to judge ethical dilemmas, a process, a methodology or a logic that not only solves the dilemmas consistently but that we are comfortable enough to use outside of the experimentation zone?

There are well known ethical theories that could we apply, the most famous ones being deontology, which is all about following rules, and utilitarianism, which is all about quantifying things. Unfortunately applying any of them to the riddle would give us dissatisfactory results:

  • If we look into deontology, we can use the rule: “Regardless of the benefits, you shall never take the life of anyone”. Under this direction, you will let five people die in all scenarios, seems ok in the bridge and doctor dilemmas but feel wrong in the trolley one. In my eyes, deontology is too inflexible for real-life application.
  • If we look into utilitarianism, we can use the slogan: “We quantify the lives we save, larger wins”. so one saves five in the trolley and then pushes the fat man and kills the traveller. A bit of a problem for the bridge and doctor dilemmas. In my eyes, utilitarianism is too ruthless for real-life application.

With this said, the whole idea of building the DREMSI method has been with the objective to provide a consistent solution for dilemmas, based on a logic that in my eyes is more flexible, human and compatible with the whole cultural system.  It has come time to see how DREMSI would solve the ethical riddle.

NEXT S1E1-B: DREMSI and the Ethical Riddle

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