The "Trolley Problem" is a classic touchstone in the philosophy of ethics. (It's so much a part of the subject that it's central in a hilarious 1988 parody article, "Tissues in the Profession: Can Bad Men Make Good Brains Do Bad Things?" by Michael F. Patton, Jr. [1].) Yesterday the Sunday New York Times book section had a review by Paul Bloom of the new Experiments in Ethics by Kwame Anthony Appiah [2]. Bloom concludes with the thoughtful:

I wish every philosopher wrote like Appiah. "Experiments in Ethics" is clear and accessible (and often very funny), and Appiah is generous when it comes to discussing the work of those he disagrees with. But this book has teeth, particularly when Appiah looks hard at the emphasis on moral dilemmas like the trolley problems. These were originally developed to tap our intuitions about agency and responsibility, and are thought to bear on real-world issues like abortion and just war. But the dense trolley literature "makes the Talmud look like Cliffs Notes" even as its complexity fails, he argues, to capture the richness of morality in our everyday lives. Real moral problems don't come in the form of SAT questions, and being a good person often requires figuring out for yourself just what the options are: "In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you're playing."

This is bad news for those who hope for a simple and elegant account of moral life, which includes many of us engaged in experimental philosophy. But it fits with Appiah's worldview. Near the end of the book, he says that when he tells a stranger on a plane that he is a philosopher, he often gets the question, "So, what's your philosophy?" He answers, "My philosophy is that everything is more complicated than you thought."

(cf. WeeBitMoreComplicated (2007-08-29), ...) - ^z - 2008-02-04

(correlates: Hold this Thought, 2008-08-02 - Catoctin 50k, OnWaste, ...)