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

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

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By (author) David Edmonds

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  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Format: Hardback | 240 pages
  • Dimensions: 142mm x 213mm x 28mm | 408g
  • Publication date: 6 October 2013
  • Publication City/Country: New Jersey
  • ISBN 10: 0691154023
  • ISBN 13: 9780691154022
  • Illustrations note: 10 line illus.
  • Sales rank: 61,481

Product description

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.

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Author information

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.

Review quote

"A lucid account of a famous thought experiment in moral philosophy."--Editors' Choice, New York Times Book Review "[J]aunty, lucid and concise... In Would You Kill the Fat Man? David Edmonds ... a seasoned philosopher, tells the story ... with wit and panache."--Sarah Bakewell, New York Times Book Review "[E]legant, lucid, and frequently funny... Edmonds has written an entertaining, clear-headed, and fair-minded book."--Cass R. Sunstein, New York Review of Books "[E]legantly written ... Edmonds's book is especially valuable for the way in which it embeds his introduction to the trolley problem in a story of the social reality that produced it."--Hallvard Lillehammer, Times Literary Supplement "David Edmonds's vastly more ambitious Would You Kill the Fat Man? has the cartoons--and just about everything else you could want in a thoughtful popular treatment of [the trolley problem]. A marvel of economy and learning worn lightly, Mr. Edmonds's book ranges pleasurably back to Aquinas and forward into the future of robots, who will of course need an ethics just as much as people do. Perhaps best of all, Mr. Edmonds recognizes that the origins of 'trolleyology' are at least as interesting as the many philosophical writings, academic exercises and parlor games that have sprung from the original trolley paper, published in 1967 by an English philosopher named Philippa Foot."--Daniel Akst, Wall Street Journal "An accessible, humorous examination of how people approach complex ethical dilemmas... Written for general readers, the book captures the complexities underpinning difficult decisions."--Publishers Weekly "Informative, accessible, engaging and witty, his book is a marvelous introduction to debates about right and wrong in philosophy, psychology, and neuro-science... In the hands of a lucid explicator like David Edmonds, trolleyology is, at once, serious business (relevant, among others things, to preferences for drone strikes) and lots of fun."--Glenn Altschuler, Psychology Today "This is a rare treat--a serious, thought-provoking book on ethics that is also witty, funny, and entertaining. Not to be missed... David Edmonds has taken the well-known trolley car problem and breathed new life into it, examining it from different perspectives and using it to shed light on the ethical theories of Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Rawls, Aristotle, and others. If you think philosophy has to be ponderous and difficult, you haven't read this book... What's intoxicating about this book is that every time you think you know what you think, Edmonds tosses out a new element... There's lots more to enjoy and learn from this book, a real gem and one of my new favorites."--Mark Willen, TalkingEthics.com "[H]umans seem hard-wired to draw a distinction between a foreseeable side effect that sadly results from doing good (switching the tracks) and purposefully harming another, no matter how noble the cause (pushing the fat man off the bridge). Edmonds's exploration of why this is so is at the heart of his thoroughly delightful book."--Brian Bethune, Macleans "[A] fascinating and important field. The light it throws on the moral institutions of human beings is its own reward, and this book will make its readers think."--Richard King, Australian "This provocatively titled tract opens with a burst of drama that proves philosophy can be exciting."--David Wilson, South China Morning Post "Edmonds enjoyably traces the ever-expanding sub-genre of trolleyology through debates about language, abortion, cannibals, war, and a complicated love quadrangle involving the novelist Iris Murdoch and the philosopher Philippa Foot, offering insights on ethics, politics, and sex along the way."--Katherine Mangu-Ward, Reason "[A] fascinating book. Edmonds uses the problem of the fat man as a jumping-off point for a fairly wide-ranging exploration of morality and ethics, and he asks us to consider carefully how we would respond. It's a big subject packed into a relatively small book, and we leave the volume with perhaps more questions than answers, but isn't that the point here--to make us find our own answers?"--David Pitt, Booklist Online "[I]mpressive... [A] walking tour of moral philosophy organized around one of the most well-known thought experiments of the last half century... By weaving together abstract principles, biographical sketches, historical examples, and trendy research in this just-so way, Edmonds has figured out how to illustrate the dimensions and consequences of moral decision-making without sacrificing entertainment value... [A] carefully executed book."--Robert Herritt, Daily Beast "This is a witty and informative discussion of the trolley problem in philosophical ethics by Oxford University researcher Edmonds... Through a highly informed yet not technical discussion, readers get an excellent introduction to some main lines of 20th-century moral philosophy."--Choice "Edmonds does an outstanding job of introducing the reader to the historical emergence and subsequent development of trolleyology, explaining its significance for both moral philosophy and moral psychology, and responding to a number of substantive criticisms of the field. Edmonds's expertise is clearly on display throughout the text, and he largely succeeds in producing a work that is informative and sophisticated without being overly technical."--Eli Weber, Metapsychology "Rich in anecdote and example and wide-ranging in scope, Would You Kill the Fat Man?, is by turns fascinating and unsettling."--Gabriel Carlyle, Peace News

Flap copy

"Lucid, witty, and beautifully written, this book is a pleasure to read. While providing an introduction to moral philosophy, it also presents engaging portraits of some of the greatest moral philosophers from Thomas Aquinas to the present day, and it makes the case for the relevance to ethics of the new experimental moral psychology. It is a tour de force."--Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen" "This is a splendid work. You shouldn't expect it to resolve all your trolley problems but you can look forward to a romping mix of fine humor, intriguing anecdote, and solid argument. It's a sheer joy to read."--Philip Pettit, Princeton University and Australian National University "David Edmonds has a remarkable knack for weaving the threads of philosophical debates into an engaging story. "Would You Kill the Fat Man?" is a stimulating introduction to some key ethical issues and philosophers."--Peter Singer, author of "The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty" "David Edmonds's new book, "Would You Kill the Fat Man?," is both highly informative and a delight to read. Written in a clear, engaging, and witty style, it succeeds admirably in making various fascinating and important debates in philosophy and psychology accessible to a broad readership."--Jeff McMahan, Rutgers University "This is a highly engaging book. David Edmonds's reflections are full of insight and he provides fascinating biographical background about the main players in the history of the trolley problem, in a style reminiscent of his very successful "Wittgenstein's Poker.""--Roger Crisp, University of Oxford

Table of contents

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 Konigsberg 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