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Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong

by David Edmonds Princeton University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 240 pages
AU$33.99 NZ$34.77
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A runaway train is racing toward five men who are tied to the track. Unless the train is stopped, it will inevitably kill all five men. You are standing on a footbridge looking down on the unfolding disaster. However, a fat man, a stranger, is standing next to you: if you push him off the bridge, he will topple onto the line and, although he will die, his chunky body will stop the train, saving five lives. Would you kill the fat man?

The question may seem bizarre. But it's one variation of a puzzle that has baffled moral philosophers for almost half a century and that more recently has come to preoccupy neuroscientists, psychologists, and other thinkers as well. In this book, David Edmonds, coauthor of the best-selling Wittgenstein's Poker, tells the riveting story of why and how philosophers have struggled with this ethical dilemma, sometimes called the trolley problem. In the process, he provides an entertaining and informative tour through the history of moral philosophy. Most people feel it's wrong to kill the fat man. But why? After all, in taking one life you could save five. As Edmonds shows, answering the question is far more complex--and important--than it first appears. In fact, how we answer it tells us a great deal about right and wrong.

List of Figures xi
Prologue xiii
Acknowledgments xv
Part 1 Philosophy and the Trolley
Chapter 1 Churchill's Dilemma 3
Chapter 2 Spur of the Moment 8
Chapter 3 The Founding Mothers 13
Chapter 4 The Seventh Son of Count Landulf 26
Chapter 5 Fat Man, Loop, and Lazy Susan 35
Chapter 6 Ticking Clocks and the Sage of Königsberg 44
Chapter 7 Paving the Road to Hell 57
Chapter 8 Morals by Numbers 69
Part 2 Experiments and the Trolley
Chapter 9 Out of the Armchair 87
Chapter 10 It Just Feels Wrong 94
Chapter 11 Dudley's Choice and the Moral Instinct 108
Part 3 Mind and Brain and the Trolley
Chapter 12 The Irrational Animal 127
Chapter 13 Wrestling with Neurons 135
Chapter 14 Bionic Trolley 153
Part 4 The Trolley and Its Critics
Chapter 15 A Streetcar Named Backfire 169
Chapter 16 The Terminal 175
Appendix Ten Trolleys: A Rerun 183
Notes 193
Bibliography 205
Index 213

David Edmonds is the author, with John Eidinow, of the best-selling Wittgenstein’s Poker, as well as Rousseau’s Dog and Bobby Fischer Goes to War. The cofounder of the popular Philosophy Bites podcast series, Edmonds is a senior research associate at the University of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and a multi-award-winning radio feature maker at the BBC. He holds a PhD in philosophy.