A review in yesterday's NYT Sunday Book Review brings the infamous "trolley problem" to wider public attention. Having blogged on this issue before, primarily from a Daoist perspective (see here and here), I will not describe the full analytic apparatus of the trolley problem, but will simply point out the the NYT review makes some points that bolster the Daoist view.
Most importantly, the review briefly cites empirical studies that attempt to discover how people actually behave when confronted with the trolley problem, as opposed to rationalist assertions of how people should behave:
The results of such studies have been fascinating, showing, for example, that women are less likely than men to sacrifice the Fat Man, or even to flip the lever in Spur. Other investigations reveal that people are more likely to approve the killing of the Fat Man if they have just seen a comedy clip as opposed to “a tedious documentary about a Spanish village.” The contingent nature of our ethical responses in general emerges from other research. We are more generous toward a stranger if we have just found a dime; a judge’s decision to grant parole depends on how long it has been since he or she had lunch. Are these the “deep-rooted moral instincts” on which we are willing to found decisions that may affect tens or hundreds of thousands of fellow humans?
The key here is: "... the contingent nature of our ethical responses in general..." It seems that people just do not behave in the manner that rationalists presume. We cannot wholly abstract ourselves from our immediate social and cultural contexts to arrive at some ideal Archimedean point that allows for near-perfect objectivity. In a sense, then, the whole exercise is something of a canard, a set-up that stacks the deck in favor of consequentialst thinking.
It could be argued that bringing behavioral data into the discussion is unfair, mixing, as it does, empirical and normative reasoning. But, in fact, that is just the point for critics of the kind of overly rationalist thinking that consequentialists love. Such critics, Daoists included, reject the analytic separation of the empirical and the normative, and argue we must ground our normative thinking in an understanding of how we actually behave.
That is where the Daoists - and the Confucians - do better than consequentialists. Both perspectives recognize the inescapably context-dependent nature of human knowledge and action. In the case of Daoists, that context is very, very specific, limited to the interaction of an individual de 德 - ("character," "integrity," "potency," "potential") as it unfolds in the vastness of dao 道. We cannot judge the dynamic experience of one de-dao relationship with the dynamic experience of another de-dao relationship. So, we cannot confidently generalize how one might be more right than another. As I suggested in an earlier post:
But Daoism does not express a clear principle that can be followed in most cases. It would offer no imperative to act, but it would also offer no imperative not to act. If action occurred spontaneously and immediately, a Daoist would not ask for reasons. There might be many causes of such action.
This does not mean that all actions, or non-actions, have the same moral valence for a Daoist. There is a Daoist ethic that is averse to killing or harming others ( discuss this on pp. 89-90 of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao). But there would be no false assumption of a kind of moral precision that consequentialists put forth. The "answer" to the Trolley problem is not simply a numeric comparison of death rates.
And it that the Daoists are right (and I say that with full understanding that the declaration of their rightness is, in itself, paradoxical from a Daoist perspective...)