Monday, 5 July 2010

Runaway Trolleys And The Problem Of Evil

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?
This is the trolley problem as proposed by Philippa Foot, giving the utilitarian imperative to save five at the expense of one. While not responsible for the situation, you as an individual have the power over the outcome. It's a terrible outcome either way, but your actions either way determine the consequences. You either flip the switch ensuring the death of one, or you fail to flip the switch and allow for the death of five.

While there are many variations on this thought experiment and various forms of objections to it, about 90% of people would throw the switch to save the five at the expense of one. Meanwhile, change the thought experiment just slightly so that instead of flipping a switch you push a fat guy then a mere 10% of people would still do it. Such an experiment is akin to harvesting a healthy patients for the organs to save five dying ones.

I'd contend that we have the obligation to participate because we have the power to change the outcome. Consider seeing a drowning child at a pool and being the only one with the ability to rescue the child. Would it be excusable to let the child drown on the grounds that its not your problem? Action of omission is still an action. We are forced into making unthinkable decisions over the power to change an outcome.

Sometimes it is a choice between the lesser of two evils. Should one get an abortion or carry to term a rape baby? It's a dilemma that too many women each year are forced to choose between. What about in war attacking buildings containing civilians because there are known terrorists inside? And consider medical expenses, is it worth a hospital spending huge amounts of money to keep alive one person when that money could pay for hundreds, even thousands of treatments for others?

When it isn't a choice between two evils, such as diverting the runaway trolley onto an empty track, surely then it becomes a matter of harm prevention rather than degrees of it. By action of omission it is causing the unnecessary deaths of five, even if you weren't the reason they were in that situation in the first place.


Enter the problem of evil. As told by David Hume, it is as follows:
"Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"
Such arguments show the contradictory nature of a reality containing an omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent deity with suffering and pain. While I don't think such a deity is worshipped by many, many claim that their respective deity has those attributes and thus it is a powerful argument against particular forms of theism.

To take the first trolley problem, we understand that there are two outcomes in our control. We are limited to either pushing the switch or refrain from pushing it knowing that either way we cannot prevent harm but only limit the degree. An omnipotent entity has no such restrictions by definition with an infinite number of ways to prevent harm from coming. In that sense, it is like the trolley problem where it's a choice between acting to prevent harm and allowing harm to pass.

Should we consider a person wicked if all they had to do to save a life was to push a button? I would argue that they are. This is illuminated by a comparable situation, finding a baby drowning in a bath where all it would take to save the baby is to reach down and pick it up.

The trolley problem is very much one in a vacuum, it's asking a question without regard of the many factors. It doesn't say who the people are which would matter a lot. If the one was your child and the five were strangers, would you still throw the switch? What if the 5 were convicted rapists and the one was a rape victim? (this is a mad philosopher remember) The problem is to illustrate how we would act in an abstract sense without complicating the thought experiment through too many variables.


The reason I've made this post was something I read recently regarding Christopher Hitchens getting cancer. In defending against the accusation of a benevolent deity giving Mr Hitchens cancer, the response was that God didn't give Mr Hitchens cancer but allowed it to happen as if there's a distinction between the two.

As soon as you start explaining events in terms of deities it starts raising questions why one thing happens but not another. The outcome is saying some genuinely horrific things, like that your daughter's rape was a test of your faith or that an infant dying of SIDS was because the infant was evil. Any rationalisation of the horrors will do because they illuminate the problem of evil so vividly.

This thinking is often taken to absurdity, think of those taking 9/11 as retribution to America for working towards a secular society or those who take any natural disaster as again a punishment for immorality. In each case the evil is manifest as the divine workings of a deity, demonstrating the deity is by no means benevolent.

No matter what the reason Hitchens got cancer (and I wish him all the best in a quick and as painless as possible recovery), a deity that can intervene had the possibility to prevent it. It is like a runaway trolley which would only require the touch of a button to prevent harm. The problem of evil is an insurmountable one because it shows the described nature of God being incompatible with the nature of nature.

6 comments:

Richard T said...

The problem I have with this argument or set of arguments is that the definition of good/benevolent is not exactly the one used by that diety. It makes sense if we move our own logic directly to God but not so much if we use God's logic in regards to us.

For instance, it is generally regarded that killing people is bad as in your example otherwise you would not flick the switch cause you have something else better to do. However, if someone say deserves to die would it be such an issue?

Kel said...

But by that reasoning, it makes calling God benevolent meaningless. How can we possibly use an attribute that has a particular meaning without possibly understanding what that entails? There's no point in talking about God and morality at all. Genocide - well that's bad by our standard but for God it might be perfectly acceptable. We can call Hitler a great monster for his extermination of the Jews but praise God as benevolent for drowning all people and animals bar a few of each species.

I'd argue that this is the essence of the problem of evil, rationalisations come in the face of problems. If nothing else, there's always the fall-back to original sin and then suddenly hundreds of thousands dying in an earthquake or a tsunami that they all deserved it. Even the suffering of animals is the result of the sins of Eve, so while a bushfire might be punishment of the Victorian government allowing abortion there's plenty of animals that suffer too.


It's at that point where I experience nothing but perpetual frustration in trying to understand all this. It's special pleading of the worst sort, using words when they suit to make a grand point but then retreating back on them when pressed. Not accusing you of doing this, but it's something I continually come across. It reduces to the absurd of "it's okay when my God does it" or "God has a plan" at which point I wonder if they are but deflections to reduce cognitive dissonance. But I could very well be missing something fundamental about such views.

Intelligent Designer said...

Hi Kel,

The problem of evil is why I don't think of God as omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent -- and one reason why I am not a Christian. I don't think the "problem of evil" rules out the existence of God; it just identified what God isn't.

In regard to cancer, its the result a entropy -- a "necessary evil". Entropy causes a battery to die, but batteries also work because of entropy. On a more complex level the same is true for life.

Kel said...

Agreed Randy, I think it only rules out a benevolent deity but it's a question I think those who profess the existence of one must answer.

Though I would dispute the entropy comment for the same reason as it would be to say an omnipotent being couldn't prevent the 5 vs 1 scenario by causing the trolley to stop in its tracks because that would be violating inertia. An omnipotent deity by definition has an infinite number of solutions that could prevent harm. Is a universe without entropy (or one where God can't violate it) an impossibility?


Though I am somewhat perplexed that you called cancer a result of entropy. What do you mean by this exactly?

Intelligent Designer said...

One way or the other, all disease is the result of entropy (the tendency for living tissue and DNA to become disorganized). If you are interested in exploring this idea google entropy aging pubmed or entropy disease pubmed.

Kel said...

Just had to check Randy. I find statements like that not very useful at times, like saying all thought is the result of quantum mechanics. It might be true in one sense but misleading in another. It doesn't make much sense in anything other than a general sense to say it accounts for all disease, especially when some of those processes that cause cancer are vital in actually forming order in the first place. So I had to clarify what you meant.