Philosophers with Guns

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On the modern battlefield, where civilians and combatants are often indistinguishable, and virtual warfare is increasingly common, soldiers are routinely required to grapple with life-changing (and potentially life-saving) moral dilemmas in a split second.

Prospect magazine reports that in an effort to establish a consistent code among U.S. troops caught in these ethical crosshairs, West Point is requiring that all of its officers-in-training take a course on “just war” theory, which includes a series of classic, academic conundrums rooted in the writings of philosopher and theologian, Thomas Aquinas.

The first scenario, which will be familiar to most college kids, is called Spur: A runaway train is hurtling towards five unsuspecting people. If you simply flip a switch you can send the train into a spur (a stretch railroad track reserved for loading and unloading) and save their lives. But one man is chained to the spur and will be killed. What would you do?

While you’re mulling that over, consider Fat Man: The same train (or trolley) is about to kill five people. You’re standing on a bridge over the tracks next to an overweight fellow. If you push him off the bridge his bulk would stop the train and save the endangered. The action will, however, kill the “fat man.”Do you shove or don’t you?

According to Prospect writer David Edmonds, “study after study” has established that about 90 percent of people faced with these hypothetical questions could live with switching the train onto a spur, and roughly the same percentage believes it’s wrong to sacrifice the heavy guy.

“What, then, is the relevant ethical distinction between them?” Edmonds asks. “This question has spawned a thriving academic mini-industry, called trolleyology.” And “trolleyology encapsulates the deepest tensions in our moral outlook. To test out our moral intuitions, philosophers have come up with ever more ingenious scenarios,” which attract “some of the smartest minds in moral philosophy.”

One of those wise guys is Jeff McMahan of Rutgers University, who “believes the trolley problem lends weight” to a doctrine of double effect, first established by Aquinas. “Crudely put,” Edmonds writes, “the doctrine allows you to perform and act that has some bad consequences, if on balance the act is good, and if the bad effects are unintended.”

This would explain why the cadets Edmond spoke to while reporting for Prospect were uniformly fascinated by trolleyology and would not kill the fat man. “They explained that the two scenarios represent the distinction between targeting a military installation knowing that civilians will be killed, and deliberately killing civilians. It’s the difference, they say, between how the U.S. and how al Qaeda wage war.”

Officers at West Point acknowledge that creating a class of philosopher-soldiers equipped to think freely carries risks in a field that regularly demands groupthink. And there’s more than a few philosophers who believe the world is too complex to use trolleyology as a way to train armed men and women to deal with the real world.

On the other hand, as more and more wartime decisions are made in front of a computer screen, where officers tell drones and robots who to shoot and who not to bomb, scenarios once considered entirely hypothetical might begin to more closely resemble the real thing.

Image by West Point Public Affairs, licensed under Creative Commons.

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