Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Trolley Problem

In 1967, the philosopher Philippa Foot wrote about a hypothetical situation in which the driver of a runaway trolley, unable to stop it but able to switch it either to one track with five men working on it or the other, with only one. This thought experiment has produced a lot of debate in ethics, but it also says a lot about abductive thinking and the role of design in such a dilemma.

When Philippa Foot first imagined this problem related to a runaway trolley or “tram” as she wrote it, it highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of utilitarian ethics. Arguing that we should always seek the greatest good for the greatest number, a utilitarian would switch to the track with one man on it in order to save the lives of five. But life rarely offers us such simple alternatives. The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson offered a variation in which an observer watching from a bridge could push a fat man, also watching from the bridge, on to the track and stop the trolley. Most people would argue that’s wrong because it involves intentionally murdering someone as opposed to the unintended accident of the runaway trolley. (Why yelling from the bridge to alert the people on the track to their danger never seems to occur as a option, I do not know.)

Other variants of the situation have also arisen. One asks what should the driver do if the one person on the track is the driver’s mother? (Most people would argue that ethics sides with saving one’s own mother as opposed to five strangers.) Another variation has the one person tied to the track by the five on the other track. (Here, too, saving the one person and killing the five seems justified given the latter’s murderous intent.)

In each one of these cases, though, we see abduction in action. Abductive thinking occurs whenever we create a situation or idea that has productive results, which clearly applies to Foot’s trolley problem. She imagined a circumstance that has proven not only durable in its usefulness, but also provocative in the number of variations it has spawned. We can even frame that in utilitarian terms: the best abductive thinking produces the greatest number of useful consequences for the greatest number of people.

What, then, does this have to do with design? Abductive thinking underlies all good design. Not all design, since there exists plenty of design that we might more aptly call decoration, which mainly involves the expression of a person’s taste. Decoration, of course, has its uses in personalizing something and possibly creating something more pleasing to others, and if that leads to its greater use, then that, too, can have useful as well as tasteful consequences.

But usefulness and tastefulness, function and form, pragmatics and aesthetics – these constitute the poles around which we define good design. But the trolley problem suggests something more. Just as Philippa Foot used abductive thinking to create such an ethically productive problem, so too do designers use such thinking to anticipate problems like this and then put in place the precautions to ensure that they not occur.

In other words, designers work in the opposite direction of ethicists. The latter seek out conflicts that highlight the difficult dilemmas we face in life, while the former seek out those same conflicts in order to prevent those very difficulties and dilemmas from occurring. To the designer, the trolley problem offers a different kind of lesson: observing what went wrong and designing trolleys and tracks to prevent it from ever happening again.

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