Why Trolley Problems Are the Least Interesting Ethical Dilemma

(And some more challenging ones)

McKinley Valentine
May 28, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by POR7O on Unsplash

Scroll down for the alternative dilemmas

Today we are talking Trolley Problems, only we’re not, because I am sick of them and they’re boring. Trolley Problems are basically, you’re a train driver, your train is about to kill five kids, do you divert it so it kills a rail worker instead. Since it’s obviously better to for one person to die than five, the question is around whether you can actually make that decision when it involves pulling the trigger yourself.

But they really jumped the shark and now it’s all “is it better to kill one doctor or five kids, since that doctor might save more than five kids’ lives in his career?” and “is it better to kill a loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules, or a world-weary detective who’s three days from retirement?” It’s just nonsense at this point.

The problem:

  1. It tends to stay way too hypothetical because most of us never encounter a situation where we have to choose which person to kill. When it feels abstract, you don’t really feel the difficulty of the decision. Stuff like “should you tell someone if you find out their partner is cheating on them” feels thornier because it’s closer to home and the stakes are lower. On that note -
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Medium-stakes dilemmas are really tricky to think of by the way. Ummmm…”Should you carjack someone if it’s the only way to see your mum in hospital before she dies?” Again with pt. 3 though, you don’t know if there’d be time to catch the train or not.

More relevant to me in any case, “should you learn to drive in case you ever need to carjack someone?”

Please send me any medium-stakes ethical dilemmas you got, and I will try to answer them.

In the meantime, I came across the following, and I guarantee you’ll struggle with them more than any Trolley Problem you’ve ever read:

Ethical dilemmas for interpreters

In each of the following scenarios, you are an interpreter hired by the public service, meaning you are not working for the police, but neither are you working for the accused. You’re meant to interpret neutrally and faithfully.

1.
A man suspected of murder is being interviewed by the police. He denies any involvement in the crime whatsoever. The interviewing police officer leaves the room for two minutes.

The man becomes agitated and tells you: “Look, it was an accident. I only wanted to scare her. I’m not guilty.”

The officer comes back with his coffee. What do you do?

2.
At a police station in an Eastern European country a young man on a stag-night trip from England is being interviewed following a street brawl which he had apparently initiated. A police officer tells him that he faces a prison sentence but adds that ‘there’s another way of dealing with this situation’ and leaves the room for a short time.

You are aware that the young man has just been invited to offer a bribe but he has no idea this is the case. What do you do?

3.
A French woman originally from Lyon is seeking a divorce from her English husband, who had cheated on her and wouldn’t let her work. The judge grants her the divorce but has to decide on the amount of financial settlement she is to receive from the respondent. The judge asks her about the market value of the house she has kept in Lyon. She says it’s worth ₤30,000 but, a native of Lyon, you know that this kind of property is in fact worth at least ten times more.

What do you do?



We would agree, I think, that interpreting includes cultural context as well as the literal word-for-word translation — you would translate an idiom into a relevant one in English — but does “cultural context” include house prices? Or the fact that a bribe is being offered? Does “neutrally” translating the bribe request make you complicit? In the first scenario, does “neutral” mean not translating anything that wasn’t intended to be said to the police? I think that one’s relatively easy because a death is involved, but what it if it was a less serious crime?

These scenarios all come from the Centre for Forensic Linguistics, and they’re based on real situations that have happened. The CFL is using them to point out how little ethical guidance is given to interpreters, and to call for more.

Their work is endlessly fascinating: they were called in as expert witnesses for a guy who said parts of his testimony had been faked — the cops had written extra bits in the margins and blank lines after he signed it. Case study is here, pulling apart the differences between the two parts of the document [PDF].

I also enjoyed their breakdown of Malicious Communications [PDF] into:

  • Threats: Personal

(justification meaning they gave a reason, not that the reason seemed fair enough to the linguists)

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet. Science, history, ideas, opinion and zero contemporary politics or hot takes.

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McKinley Valentine

Written by

Full-time writer based in Melbourne, Australia. I make cult-hit newsletter The Whippet: Science, history, weirdness, and non-cliched advice | thewhippet.org

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

McKinley Valentine

Written by

Full-time writer based in Melbourne, Australia. I make cult-hit newsletter The Whippet: Science, history, weirdness, and non-cliched advice | thewhippet.org

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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