Picture the following situation: You are taking a freshman-level philosophy class in college, and your professor has just asked you to imagine a runaway trolley barreling down a track toward a group of five people. The only way to save them from being killed, the professor says, is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley onto an alternate set of tracks where it will kill one person instead of five. Now you must decide: Would the mulling over of this dilemma enlighten you in any way?
I ask because the trolley-problem thought experiment described above—and its standard culminating question, Would it be morally permissible for you to hit the switch?—has in recent years become a mainstay of research in a subfield of psychology. Scientists use versions of the kill-one-to-save-five hypothetical, reworded and reframed for added nuance, as a standard way to probe the workings of the moral mind. The corpus of “trolleyology” data they’ve produced hints that men are more likely than women to sacrifice a life for the sake of several others, for example, and that younger people are inclined to do the same. (Argh, millennials and their consequentialist moral paradigm!) Trolley-problem studies also tell us people may be more likely to favor the good of the many over the rights of the few when they’re reading in a foreign language, smelling Parmesan cheese, listening to sound effects of people farting, watching clips from Saturday Night Live, or otherwise subject to a cavalcade of weird and subtle morality-bending factors in the lab.
For all this method’s enduring popularity, few have bothered to examine how it might relate to real-life moral judgments. Would your answers to a set of trolley hypotheticals correspond with what you’d do if, say, a deadly train were really coming down the tracks, and you really did have the means to change its course? In November 2016, though, Dries Bostyn, a graduate student in social psychology at the University of Ghent, ran what may have been the first-ever real-life version of a trolley-problem study in the lab. In place of railroad tracks and human victims, he used an electroschock machine and a colony of mice—and the question was no longer hypothetical: Would students press a button to zap a living, breathing mouse, so as to spare five other living, breathing mice from feeling pain?
Read the whole story: Slate