towards a sociology of trolleys: luft on moral cognition

How Michael Schur's The Good Place tackles moral philosophy with a ...
From The Good Place, s2e05, “The Trolley Problem.”

The trolley problem is a classic thought experiment in moral philosophy. A quick version is: should you pull a switch to change the tracks of a moving trolley to hit only one person when it’s currently on a set of tracks that will lead it to hit five?

There are many variations, and these variations have led to an entire genre of experimental studies known as “trolleyology”, where participants are given different framings of the problem and researchers track what framings induce changes in decisions. An incredibly popular crowdsourced experiment in this genre aimed at producing information about what the public expects from autonomous vehicles.

This genre is so well known that it was even explored in an entire episode of “The Good Place.” In the episode, deceased philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye tries to explain the trolley problem (full recap here) to Michael who is, well, I won’t spoil anything and it’s complicated, but Michael is supernatural and not human and doesn’t get it. But specifically, Michael critiques Chidi’s posing of the problem as an abstract thought experiment and instead pushes Chidi into a vivid simulation where he has only moments to react. And Chidi does what we’d all likely do: he freezes. While the trolley problem as an abstract conundrum is incredibly familiar to him, the actual situation of having to choose to pull a switch or not in a matter of seconds is completely unfamiliar – and the characters from the problem are no longer abstract, they are real (or real seeming) people, in a particular context. Chidi is overwhelmed (to be fair, Chidi is often overwhelmed) and can’t reason his way through and so he panics and shuts down.

How 'The Good Place' Goes Beyond 'The Trolley Problem' - The Atlantic
Chidi, center, shutting down.

I couldn’t help but think of this episode and its translation of an abstract moral problem into a concrete situation when I read Aliza Luft’s fantastic new Socius paper, “Theorizing Moral Cognition: Culture in Action, Situations, and Relationships.”In the paper, Luft offers a sociological critique of trolleyology along two important lines, and uses this critique to suggest ways that sociology can better inform theories of moral cognition in general. First, Luft argues that, contra an overly strong reading of Vaisey 2009, in unfamiliar/crisis situations, actors are more likely to rely on “slow”/type II cognition rather than “fast”/type I cognition for making moral judgments. While we may rely on instinct and feelings first in making familiar judgments (and then offer a rationale for those feelings later), a different process plays out in unfamiliar or extreme situations. Eventually, if the situation is repeated, people puzzle out their moral intuitions, and slide back into type I cognition. Luft herself researches genocide, and offers this chilling footnote as an example of this process:

For example, in my study of behavioral variation in the Rwandan genocide (Luft 2015), I found that with time and experience, civilian participants “cognitively adapted” to how it felt to kill neighbors (see also Luft 2020).

Second, Luft argues that trolley problems are typically posed in a fashion that is at once too abstract (lacking context) and also implies certain raced, classed, and gendered aspects of persons that are not made explicit yet necessarily shape our moral intuitions. This second critique likely holds for both familiar and unfamiliar moral dilemmas. For example, Luft notes that a classic alternative framing of the trolley problem poses the dilemmas as whether you should push a “really fat man” off a footbridge to stop the trolley to save five strangers, which may well influence how respondents evaluate the morality of choosing to end that man’s life to save five (generic) others. Similarly, Luft notes that Haidt’s classic moral conundrum experiments used stereotypically white names and markers of wealth (e.g. international vacations) and that this likely influenced respondents’ moral evaluations. As Luft notes, debates over recent protests illustrate this phenomenon quite vividly:

It is easy to imagine, given the different interpretations Americans have expressed regarding football player Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem to protest police violence against African Americans, that how we categorize subjects in research matters. 

10 Times Family Guy Played The Race Card - YouTube
Family Guy‘s take on colorism in moral evalution.

Rather than summarize more, let me just tell you to go read the full article if you’re at all interested in culture & cognition, ethics, or excellent examples of sociological critiques of nearby fields. If nothing else, read the preface, written in April in light of the COVID response, which tries to grapple with the real-life moral dilemmas faced in this very moment will likely play out in light of Luft’s research. I’ll end with just posting the first three paragraphs:

This paper is about moral judgments in challenging and uncertain times and how social relationships shape our perceptions of right and wrong. My original goal in writing it was to explore a curious gap in the psychological research on morality that we often unwittingly incorporate into our sociological work: how situations and perceptions influence moral cognition and, in turn, social behavior. I never could have imagined how COVID-19 would collapse the distance between theory and practice.

Today, as some 85 percent of Americans live under orders to shelter-in-place, where even the most banal social interaction could prove a link in a chain of contagion and death, these issues feel relevant, urgent, and close. In particular, I begin the paper with a summary of two models of moral cognition: the social intuitionist model and the digital camera model. The latter is premised on what is occasionally cheekily referred to as “Trolleyology,” after a famous series of experiments where participants are confronted with life-and-death decisions. It has often been dismissed by those who claim such circumstances—where one person is tasked with choosing who lives and who dies—are esoteric and unrelatable. Still, as someone who studies decision-making about violence, it seemed worth sorting through the truths inherent in the scenario. I am devastated by how relevant those truths seem today.

As I write, there are places in the world where there aren’t enough hospital beds or respirators to allow all patients to receive adequate medical care. Italian doctors have been forced to weigh one life against another. Very soon, their colleagues in the United States will face such terrible responsibilities as well. There are no good blueprints for such devastating moral decisions. One group of bioethicists proposed that, should equipment or care be rationed, the young and those who are front-line health workers must have priority (Emanuel et al. 2020). State plans in Alabama call for a scheme in which “persons with severe or profound mental retardation, moderate to severe dementia, or catastrophic neurological complications such as persistent vegetative state are unlikely candidates for ventilator support.” Doctors in Pennsylvania created an eight-point scale, since adopted by hospitals around the country, to calculate a patient’s pre-COVID life expectancy (given any preexisting conditions), as well as their likelihood for surviving their current hospitalization as physicians sort who will—and who will not—get life-saving care (White 2020). Many facilities are considering adopting universal do-not-resuscitate orders for coronavirus patients because of the risks such efforts might pose to hospital staff. These heartbreaking preparations, let alone the actual decisions, felt unthinkable not long ago.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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