March 16, 1993-94
Prof. R. McGinn
ESSAY QUESTION (30 points)
INSTRUCTIONS: making abundant use of course materials, compose a
closely reasoned essay answering the following question bearing on
one of the course’s central themes (ethics and technology). Limit:
6 Blue Book sides.
Consider the following case:
On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley.
There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of
the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way
in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware
of this, for the brain — unlike Bo — knows trolleys. The brain is
causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine
the course which the trolley will take. On the right side of the
track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be
killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman
on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of
killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of
thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to
destroy a bridge that the orphan’s bus will be crossing later that
night). One of the orphans that will be killed would grow up to
become a tyrant who would make good, utilitarian men do bad things,
another would grow up to become John Sununu, while a third would
invent the pop-top can.
If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the
trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the
track, “Leftie,” and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the
track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients
in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are
the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the
brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track
lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the
railman on the right would kill. However, “Leftie” will kill the five
as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently
kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for
transplantation. A further result of “Leftie’s” act would be that the
busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by
“Leftie” are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the
controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten
hearts and “Leftie” are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective
heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to
save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will
grow up to cure cancer and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler.
There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available, however the
brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.
Assume that the brain’s choice, whatever it turns out to be, will
serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of its
decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the
right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue,
while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war
crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active
Cartesian demon deceiving the brain such that the brain is never sure
if it is being deceived.
QUESTION: Ethically speaking, what should the brain do?
Justify your answer.