On the Harvard website you can watch a video of Michael Sandel’s introductory Political Theory class. (I think I’m supposed to say it’s a “vodcast” of an “interactive seminar,” but I’m not going to: it’s a video of a guy teaching a class.) He starts with a couple of applied-ethics scenarios. Omitting his dramatic pauses and flourishes, here they are.
The brakes fail on the train you’re driving. It’s going to hit four men working on the track ahead. But suddenly you see you could switch to another track where there’s only one man working. Do you switch tracks? Sandel puts the question to the class, and pretty much all of them raise their hands yes.
Then he asks: You’re leaning over a bridge watching a train. You see that the brakes have failed and that it’s going to hit four men working on the track. There’s no second track, but there is, leaning over the bridge beside you, a very fat man. You know that if you pushed him over, he would land on the track, preventing it from hitting the four men. Do you push him?
Of course most of the class raises hands no, and then Sandel plays with them, trying to show that if they said yes to the first they should have said yes to the second, that ethics is inconsistent or at least more difficult than it at first appears. The students tie themselves in knots trying to come up with a factor that can distinguish the two cases — active vs. passive; fat man about to cure cancer; etc. — and Sandel shoots them all down.
This kind of teaching evokes in me something between annoyance and contempt. The difference between the two scenarios is, simply, that the first could happen and the second could not. In reality you could not know from the top of the bridge that the brakes had failed, you could not know that the man would land on the track, you could not know whether, if he landed on the track, he would derail the train killing all the passengers, and you could not know that his body would be more likely to have the desired effect than your own. It’s all a device, and it only works for Sandel because it has nothing to do with the world in which we actually live. It’s no surprise that the students are averse to pushing the man over: whatever moral principles make them averse were formed in an arena (reality) where scenarios like this don’t take place. In a world in which they could happen, we’d be different creatures.
It’s reminding me of the star philosophy student who took a course of mine on genocide and wrote a paper on the slipperyness of the slippery. She was trying to say something about the difficulty one gets into applying the term genocide too widely, but rather than discussing massacres, historical or theoretical, she reverted to nonsense. (Come to think of it I believe she got a full scholarship to Harvard grad school.) Later I was discussing her essay with a biologist from Joint Sciences who told me that Physics professors drove her students crazy by asking them to discuss a “two-dimensional pen in a vacuum,” or a “bicycle on a frictionless surface.”
I think I’ve also heard it referred to as “rubber sheep” thinking, but google turns up nothing.