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Monday, 6 April 2020

The Signalman’s Dilemma

A railway signalman spots a runaway truck hurtling down the line, about to crash into an elderly couple who are not paying much attention to anything other than taking photographs of flowers between the tracks (growing there because of lack of maintenance?).

The signalman could divert the runaway truck on to a different track by changing the points. However, there are people on the other track too, a group of five railway workers who (owing to privatisation policies?) have been badly trained and are eating their sandwiches and not keeping proper watch.

Should the signalman switch the points so that the truck will run over the railway workers, or do nothing and watch the elderly couple die?

Now, a different dilemma.

You are the dictator of a country in the grip of a lethal virus. You can minimise the number of deaths by making most people stay at home for months so that they don’t come into contact with each other. This, however, will cause long-term levels of unemployment, poverty, hunger, untreated illness and inequality not seen since the early nineteen thirties, as a result of which an unknown number of people will die.

Alternatively, you can impose fewer restrictions and avoid damaging the economy, but this will result in certain deaths from the virus, possibly including your family, friends and even yourself.

Which would you choose? A difficult decision would have to be made.

30 comments:

  1. You'd need the wissdon of Solomon to answer that Tasker.

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  2. Replies
    1. Or perhaps Wisden. We need Brian Close, a cricketing gambler, prepared to take risks. He was often right.

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    2. Or Norman Wisdom running the country.

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    3. What a thought. You're 60-70 years too late to write that film script.

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  3. It is probably why we go from one decision to another. 'Herd' instinct is a bad idea. What about changing the way the economy works? I think the restrictions work, family and friends important, myself not so much. Everyone is talking about the 'after' how things will change, we will have to wait and see.

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    1. The privatisation and maintenance asides were perhaps a nod to the economic precursors. In a disaster there are usually multiple causative factors.
      I think they're trying to steer a middle course, an option the signalman did not have. But if he had, would it have killed all of them?

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  4. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

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  5. Tasker you have hit the nail on the head. Is there a solution or do we hedge our bets? I am just glad I do not have to make any decision.

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    1. Yes, it's so easy for me or anyone else to criticise. Trump has been vilified for his "difficult decisions" statement whereas perhaps on this rare occasion he is correct.

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  6. The runaway trolley. Utilitarianism, the morally correct decision that maximises the wellbeing for the greatest number of people. Or as John Stuart Mill said, the ethical act is the one that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Mill would switch track to save the five men because more happiness is at stake. Kant on the other hand would not switch track on the basis that we should never deliberately harm anyone even if it means five dying as opposed to one. I would go for Mill's utilitarianism. But Mill would have to weigh up how long the happiness would last, i.e. will the happiness of all saved and their families outweigh the long term misery of poverty and collapse of economy? We could do with JS Mill to help.

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    1. Interesting analysis, but does it imply we let the (predominantly) old people die (me, you, all the others who comment on our blogs)? I read JSM's Utilitarianism for a course at university and thought it brilliant. Good job he wasn't a signalman. It might take him too long to decide.

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    2. The trolley bus is the classic philosophy text book case study as you will know. I am happy to obediently do what the government asks of me, and carry it out to the letter, but I am not saying that is the scenario I would have chosen. I won't say more than that. The water has of course been muddied by health services the world over and where would Mills have fitted them in? I didn't know how to deal with the NHS when I left my comment so left it out.

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    3. I hadn't really thought about it for 40 years so thank you for reminding me. We looked at Utilitarianism and also at B F Skinner's Walden 2 - possibly to contrast them as one is about free will and the other about predetermined behaviour.

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  7. I have no answers to such difficult questions. I know doctors here are being trained in how to decide what patient gets the ventilator if they have one ventilator and two patients that need it. They are to choose the patient with the fewest health problems. It is coming to this here now due to shortage of equipment.

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    1. It has even been said that might be allocated by lottery. I've been reading about a deep breathing procedure you can use to keep your lungs well aerated (J K Rowling has said it helped her recover). I'm going to start straight away just in case.

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    2. On YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/embed/HwLzAdriec0
      Article in The Daily Mail: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8192533/NHS-doctor-shares-breathing-technique-coronavirus-patients.html

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  8. So that was the dictator that Trump says he entertains in the Oval Office.

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  9. I would rather answer the first question than the second one Tasker. It would be "Sayonara" to the elderly couple and then the railway crew could quickly clean up the mess. Yes, the second question is definitely of the "Catch 22" variety and I am not about to go there.

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    1. Otherwise, the elderly couple would die of shock, anyway. What a quick thinking signalman you would make.

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  10. I never envy politicians for their duty to make difficult and often unpopular decisions, but now I envy them even less than before. Or doctors; I would not want to have decide between patients to put on breathing equipment and let nature take its course with another one.

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    1. And to be controversial, who isn't in intensive care because someone else is?

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  11. If only life were as clean cut as this.

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    1. The veil has been lifted. We are seeing what life is really like, and always has been.

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  12. I have to say save the old people - because it could be me. Horrible decisions having to be made. I just pray that made in the name of compassion rather than economy.

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    1. I hope we can all last out until there is a vaccine. I've never bothered with the winter flu jab, but I will from now on if it's does covid as well.

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