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Sunday, May 17, 2015


When I was a boy, the Reader's Digest was a very popular little magazine -- little in the sense that it was small enough to fit in a drug store rack, unlike such full-size magazines as Life, Collier's, and Look.  Reader's Digest had a regular bottom-of-the page feature called "The Most Unforgettable Person I Have Ever Met."  My nominee [never submitted for publication] was Benjamin Muckenhoupt, a Harvard classmate who was an albino piccolo playing mathematician.  One of Bennie's more endearing quirks was a passion for trolley cars.  Bennie swore that in the old days you could go all the way from Boston to New York on trolley cars for one fare plus transfers.  [Bennie was notoriously cheap].  He once went out on a date with a young lady from North Attleboro, arranged by another classmate, Bob Funk, who came from Speaker of the House Joe Martin's home town.  Bennie took her on an extended trolley ride, and was very distressed when she wanted to dismount to get a Coke at a point where he would have been unable to secure transfers to get back on.

My latest blog post seems to have brought a number of trolley enthusiasts into the conversation.   Pastrypride [those Internet handles again!] breaks a lance for trolley car examples, and JW offers a link to his/her discussion of my post on another blog.  At the risk of trying the patience of the rest of the blogosphere, I shall try in this post to respond, expanding my remarks and perhaps making clearer the reasons for my scepticism about trolley car arguments.  None of this, it goes without saying, is in any way intended to cast aspersions on actual trolley cars, either those that run on tracks or the Boston variety always referred to as "trackless trolleys."  [They get power from overhead power lines to which they are attached by flexible arms that are always coming loose and flailing about, forcing the conductor to stop the trolley, get out, and swing the arm back and forth until it attaches itself again on the power line.]

The heart of pastrypride's objection to my comments is this sentence:  "Harris's mistake wasn't to try to use such thought experiments, it was to misuse them."  In the previous paragraph, he/she offers, as an example of the proper use of such hypothetical arguments, asking with regard to George Zimmerman's murder of Travon Martin what the reaction would have been had Zimmerman been Black and Martin White.  The correct answer, though pastrypride does not think it is necessary to spell it out, is of course that Zimmerman would have been apprehended, indicted, and convicted of murder almost before the newspapers could carry the story, and pastrypride is quite correct that that fact tells us something important about America. 

So just what is my objection to trolley car arguments?  Let me try again.  Most philosophical arguments in the general field of Moral Philosophy [which I use to include Political Philosophy as well] make appeal at many points to what is often referred to as our "moral intuitions."  Now, the word intuition is, in some branches of philosophy, such as Kantian epistemology, a term of art with a precise denotation and connotation, but that is almost never the way in which it is being used here.  "Appealing to our moral intuitions" means, rather loosely, checking with our sense of a complex situation, asking ourselves what we think about it, sometimes asking how people like us think about it -- or even, though moral philosophers virtually never offer any evidence for the claim, asking how all decent normal people would think about the situation if they were confronted with it.  In less exalted venues than philosophy journals, this is referred to as taking a gut check.

How I respond to a situation, what seems obvious and incontrovertible to me about its moral significance, is deeply shaped, if not determined, by my personal history, by my culture and class position, by my knowledge of history and economics and sociology, and also by the broader ideological context of my life, of which I may be utterly incapable of articulating.  Let me give a personal example, as is so often my wont. 

Shortly before I joined the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts in 1992, a Los Angeles taxi cab driver, Rodney King, was brutally and wantonly beaten by a group of LAPD officers, a beating that was caught on tape.   The acquittal four of the officers videotaped beating King triggered riots reminiscent of those following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The reaction of my new colleagues in Afro-Am to the Rodney King affair was markedly different from that of most White commentators, on the left as well as on the right.  The White commentators viewed the incident as an aberration, whether excusable [those on the right] or to be condemned as arising out of widespread racism still present in American society.  But my colleagues saw it, to use the familiar phrase, as same ole same ole.  They saw it as simply the most recent of a string of abuses, oppressions, enslavements, beatings, and lynchings going back more than four hundred years.  Their moral intuitions about the event were utterly different from those of the majority of Americans  -- not their moral judgments, but their moral intuitions.    

The trouble with trolley car hypotheticals is that they are deracinated -- they are rootless.  They are not situated in the actual social, political, historical, and ideological context of the lives of those who are being asked to "consult your moral intuitions."  Consequently, replies to trolley car hypotheticals are virtually valueless.  In the real world, when subordinates bring to a President a decision about, let us say, a bombing raid or a drone strike, the subordinates scrub the briefing papers clean of all manner of facts -- about probable civilian casualties, about the uncertainty of the intelligence, etc. -- that they know might implicate the President in the responsibility if something goes wrong -- and any person who occupies the position of President knows this, or ought to know it, or has contrived to forget it.  Ever since Watergate, this has been referred to as preserving the President's "plausibly deniability."  If our "moral intuitions" about the President's decision are not grounded in an awareness of that simple fact, along with countless others, then our moral intuitions are no better as a guide to our judgment than my moral intuitions were about the Rodney King case before I learned some of the things my colleagues had known all their lives.

It would be tedious to spell out in detail example after example of appeals to moral intuitions and the contexts in which they are embedded.  By the way, this problem is not peculiar to trolley cars.  John Rawls' elegant account of what he calls "reflective equilibrium" suffers from the same problem.  It is no more reliable than what the ancients called consensus gentium.

Well, enough from me about trolley cars.


classtruggle said...

The Interest in 'trolleyology' highlights the appalling triviality of so much modern Anglo-American philosophy i.e. analytic philosophy.

Remember the famous line in Chapter 10 of CAPITAL Volume One:

"The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser...[and]...the worker maintains his rights as a seller...There is here therefore an antinomy, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides" (1867/1976, p.344).

What Marx is signaling here is that there is no way that many of the important questions posed in ethical or rights terms can be resolved (by appeal to ethics, rights and the laws and legalities of exchange) without being reformulated in class-struggle terms. In other words, there is no way to adjudicate 'fairly' between equal rights. All you can do is to fight for your side of the argument.

Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
I've always been drawn to your conclusion as an essentially correct one. However, as a Kant scholar, I've wondered, don't you think that if Kant was right about there being a form of transcendental idealism/subjectivity, then in fact all agents regardless of historical circumstances, do have the same equipment for making elementary moral judgments in congruence?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, I spent many years struggling to find in Kant a satisfactory argument for the universality and objectivity of a fundamental principle of morality [what we humans experience as a Categorical Imperative] and finally concluded that the argument does not exist. By the way, the transcendental idealism of the First Critique won't do it for ethics, because, Kant insists [I think rightly] that if there is a moral law binding on all moral agents, it is binding on them as things in themselves, not as appearances in the realm of phenomena. But that is a very long story [about which I have written a good deal, needless to say. :) ]

Chris said...

Thank you!

Would any of your arguments be located in the book you wrote on 'Kant's theory of mental activity'?

I recently obtained an E-copy.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, you would find them in THE AUTONOMY OF REASON [a commentary on the Groundwork] and also in a number of other places.

Unknown said...

You might be interested in Allen Wood's commentary in volume two of Derek Parfit's On What Matters. He displays a similar sort of skepticism on trolley problems there.