The trolley problem at West Point
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Philosophy for soldiers
David Edmonds at BBC News reports that all West Point cadets are now required to study moral philosophy and “the trolley problem.” He outlines the famous thought experiment nicely:
Imagine there is a runaway tram, known in America as a trolley, heading towards five people tied to the track.
You are a bystander.
If you do nothing, all five will die.
But you could hit a switch and divert it down a side track.
Unfortunately, on that spur is one person and if you turn this tram, this person will die.
What should you do? Turn the tram? Most people think you should.
Now imagine that same tram is again heading towards five people. This time you are watching from a footbridge.
There is a fat man leaning over this footbridge. If you push him over, he will land on the track and die, but his bulk will stop the tram.
So should you push the fat man? Almost no-one thinks you should.
Why might it be acceptable to turn the tram and kill the man on the track but not acceptable to push the fat man?
West Point philosophy professor Jeff McMahan explains to Edmonds the implications of this conundrum to warfare. He argues that it reveals the moral distinction (recognized in international law) between killing civilians intentionally, and knowing civilians will die as a foreseen consequence of military action, “between attacking a munitions factory aware that there will be, to use that euphemism, collateral damage, and aiming at civilians intentionally.”
It might be clearer to say that the trolley problem shows that soldiers should not use the death of civilians as a strategic tool. It’s different when civilians die as a consequence of some other, legitimate strategy. Of course, there are proportionality concerns when one knows that civilians will die (how important is the military action in question vs. how many civilians will die).
As to the more general importance of future military officers studying philosophy, Major Danny Crozier explains that while it leads to the possibility of insubordination, that concern is outweighed by the fact that soldiers must not obey unjust commands. I don’t know the law on this, but it seems dangerous to have soldiers consider the morality of every command, following only the ones they support. Maj. Crozier must mean that soldiers must not obey clearly unjust commands, the illegitimacy of which is not open to serious debate.