Philosophy gone badly wrong

Matthew found this tw**t showing how a little kid solves the famous philosophical Trolley Problem (you should all know what it is).

The boy starts off well, but then goes off the rails, so to speak. He needs a lesson from Rebecca Goldstein (see my post later today):

A version with sound is on YouTube:

I have long touted this, and other discussions of ethical issues, as some of the great contributions of philosophy to human thought. Thus I am deeply aggrieved to be called a “philosophy jeering scientist”. But more later.


  1. Randy schenck
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Could the moral of this test be – Don’t let a two year old drive the train or trolley. Or his train lost it’s gravy?

  2. Phil Rounds
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Well, there’s proof that at least that 2 year old doesn’t yet understand the concept of mortality. That’s why asking kids questions concerning ethics is a waste of time. Children are not born with a sense of ethics…they learn them from family, teachers and peers. So what you inevitably end up with, if you ask them, is what those around them have passed on to them.

    I never liked the “trolley problem”. It’s a bit too much like the Kobayashi Maru. Given that scenario (contrived unwinnabiity) i’d just pick up the train and turn it around so it’s going the other way.

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Children are not born with a sense of ethics…they learn them from family, teachers and peers.

      Our ethics is also underpinned by our genetics, but this gives a “development program” that plays out through interactions with peers and adults. Ethics are not *purely* learned.

    • Jamie
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      I think that children do have an innate sense of “fair play” which is the basis for any ethics later learned in life. Just treat any young one unjustly and watch what happens.

    • Filippo
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      It’s a bit too much like the Kobayashi Maru.”

      Well, perhaps when he gets older and tries it again, he will do like Kirk and change the computer programming to yield a win scenario, and get a “commendation for original thinking” to boot.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      I do not get the purpose of the problem either.

      If it is supposed to show individuals that there are moral problems that can be undecidable, akin to majority voting, resource sharing et cetera, it is contrived. No one needs to know about it specifically, but rather about the theories.

      If it is supposed to show philosophers the same, so that they know that ethics cannot be fully, consistently axiomatized, again it is contrived (but maybe philosophers needs contrivance on their own terms). Mainly then, why do we need to know about it?

      Which gets me to the third point, it shows that such scenarios are rare, presumably so rare that we do not need to ponder such corner cases. But for the third time, we reasonably know that from observation of actual moral events, and again we need not know about it.

      Maybe it is Philosophy’s Troll[ey] Problem?

      • Posted July 12, 2017 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        I disagree; I don’t think such scenarios are rare at all. Any time we have to make a decision about how to allocate finite resources, we are facing a version of the trolley problem. Every cost-benefit decision, every decision that involves making a tradeoff of any kind, is a version of the trolley problem. And in reality, almost all decisions involve tradeoffs. It’s just that the tradeoffs are often invisible to us. The trolley problem makes people uncomfortable because it makes the tradeoffs unpleasantly vivid.

        Just to give one example: if you have a finite amount of money to donate to a life-saving charity–and there are certainly more life-saving charities than you can possibly support with that money–you are faced with the decision of choosing to help save some people’s lives at the expense of not helping to save other people’s lives. That IS the trolley problem!

        Every decision, large or small, that we make about what to do with the limited resources available to us–whether it’s our money, our time, our energy, whatever–we are living in the world of the trolley problem.

        • Posted July 13, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          What you’re describing is triage, which is extremely well studied and to which the Trolley Problem is perfectly irrelevant.




      • Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        It’s a distillation of moral issues. You have the choice of killing one person by action or five people by inaction. Personally, I don’t see the problem. I don’t see any real difference in the sin by omission and the sin by commission in this particular case. You have to make a decision as to which way the train goes. Telling yourself that it’s OK to let the five people die because you don’t have to physically do anything is an abdication of responsibility, an act of moral cowardice.

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Not necessarily. He might already understand the concept that toy figures aren’t real people.

      My nephew wasn’t much older than that when I tried to modify some behaviour of his that I wanted him to stop by saying “Mrs Moo [a caricature of a cow, much beloved by him] wouldn’t like that”. He gave me a contemptuous look and said

      “she’s only a stuffed toy, Jeremy”.

  3. Posted July 12, 2017 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    I hate the Trolley Problem. I always believe in finding another way. I’m with the kid.

    • Harry M. Corrigan
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

      I have never liked the Trolley Problem much either. I suspect that people can’t help but insert their real-life knowledge into the problem. Although they are told to assume the fat man stops the trolley, they know that in fact no one is fat enough to do that, and that in real life they would just be killing six people, instead of five. And also that they would certainly be charged with manslaughter, if not worse.

  4. bric
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    I think he is solving another conundrum: If you had access to a button that would destroy the World, would you press it? All 2-year olds (and some presidents) would.

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Who’s to say kid didn’t figure if you added the one other “person” to the mix, together they would stop the train (especially if he was a superhero) or maybe were all bad people, and the train was a good train, like Thomas the Train?

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Not to mention the history eraser button.

  5. Posted July 12, 2017 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Oh-oh. No-one tell Ben about this post.


  6. BobTerrace
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    And that two year old grew up to become the current president of the United States and still thinks like a two year old.

  7. sponge bob
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    hehe, that was pretty funny. Not surprised though, kids like to destroy things. Build a lego tower and they love tearing it down.

  8. bric
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Not really relevant, but I followed the ‘related’ link to a discussion of the Ontological Argument, which lead to some Googling and this, a novel proof of the non-existence of God; and also bears upon the recent egg discussion

    • Merilee
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      Omfg, plus it sounds like my cat at 5 AM

      • Posted July 12, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        What has been seen cannot be unseen.

        • bric
          Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

          I apologize. Rhik suffers for us all

    • darrelle
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      That is hilarious.

  9. Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Apparently he chose the Catholic solution, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”

    • rickflick
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      I thought that was ISIS. Hmmm…faith and it’s unintended consequences.

  10. claudia baker
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Two-year-old: “What are these goddamn people doing on the track anyway?”

    • Randy schenck
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      It’s just a visual Claudia, they are not dead.

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      LEOG mini-figs can change heads, torsos and legs. They are indestructible. Kid knows this.

  11. Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    The one on its own was Milo. Those on the other track said, “Don’t run over Milo, he’s a bit crazy, but he’s not a Nazi. Don’t run over anyone!”. The kid is Dan Arel.

  12. darrelle
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I think the kids “solution” likely has more to say about his opinion of the philosophy than anything else.

  13. Benjay
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    You are on Twitter, robbing pictures of children for your blog. Stand-down.

    Good luck getting 50,000 followers. Could you remove the photo of my Son playing trains from your blog please?

    Twitter is making you stupid? Ethics is hard. You have agency.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      How do you rob pictures from a public place. Call a cop with that.

      • Benjay
        Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        Why call the police? Take the child off the blog please.

    • Filippo
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      Why are you putting your son’s picture before the public on Twitter in the first place?

  14. claudia baker
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    May be the two-year-old version of “Get off my lawn!”

  15. Benjay
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Deeply aggrieved to be called a “philosophy jeering scientist” by a toodler? Write some on ethical philosophical bs and, stop cappin’ young black guys? I think you seem like a university problem. More birds. More cats. Take my Son down off this blog please. You are ruining his rep! Do some work.

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Bye, rude person.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted July 12, 2017 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        Great idea. There is a commercial on the TV with Christopher Walken saying Bye, Bye, Bye. Very appropriate. I think it is an ad for Bai (some drink).

  16. Kevin
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Every Tragedy can be reduced to the Trolley Problem.

    “Unavoidable decision. Inevitable loss.”

    I ask any reader to supply a single Tragedy (Greek, Novel, Play, Comic book, Movie, etc.) that does not have a Trolley Problem.

    It’s all kryptonite, whales, and Anna’s jump.

  17. rickflick
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    I think the child had a benign motive. He didn’t want the 5 to die alone.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      OR (as suggested in the comments at YT), perhaps he just didn’t want any living witness.

  18. Posted July 12, 2017 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I think that kid sums up every ethical answer that can be posited -It is the only answer that comes out, albeit in different causal structures. 😄. He’s more honest than the global cohort of paid professors. Get this kid on the payroll!

  19. Pliny the in Between
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Related note – did this version of the trolley problem for some engineer friends back in 2016

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Before Trolley Problem, there was the 1960 movie The Crowded Sky, where the passenger plane is on a collision course with a solo jet fighter pilot. (And the same situation has happened before! Will they do the right thing!) But the movie wasn’t asking us to make the decision.

      Trolley Problems leads to TV show like 24 with Jack Bauer torturing to save someone else, and the odious Saw movies franchise.

      The Trolley Problem is a contrivance where “God,” (or someone pretending to be god) insists that *your only “choice” must be to kill/murder someone for some undefined good.

      So my solution to is to go after whoever is telling me to do this, as they must be liars and sadists.

      “Well then, I’d fire the guys who built such a crappy mass transit system.” Love your solution.

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 12, 2017 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        And don’t forget The Dark Knight.

        Yeah, I was at some level in grade school when I realized how easy it was to think up these horrible scenarios, and then how stupid such an activity is. That some adult academic is lauded for the same thing I just don’t get. But this is what philosophy at its worst does–thinks up unreal scenarios and then talks the sh*t out of them, convincing a lot of folks that doing so is profound and meaningful.

        (Thank g*d WEIT’s a site where we can disagree with the boss…erm, right, Jerry?)

        It is interesting, though, that self-driving car programmers are actually dealing with similar dilemmas.

        • Posted July 12, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

          It is interesting, though, that self-driving car programmers are actually dealing with similar dilemmas.

          Not really. So many systems have to fail before a robot car gets into a dilemma that it’s got to pick what to crash into that there’s no point left in assuming there’s enough left that’s reliable for it to make such a decision.

          Or, if you could distinguish between the hot babe who wants to screw your brains out for being the hero who rescued her and Adolph Hitler’s resurrected clone baby…you’d have safely avoided the crash in the first place.



          • Diane G.
            Posted July 12, 2017 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

            Makes sense. And even if there were (“enough left to make a reliable decision”) it seems as if for the disinterested programmer it would be a simple choice–save the most lives. On the chance that it ever got that far, that should cover them in court…

        • Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

          Actually, I think the Trolley Problem is a good exercise in analyzing people’s moral instincts: why is it ok to switch the train but not throw a fat person on the tracks to stop the trolley before it hits the five people?

          • Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

            The answer, in no small part, was empirically obtained by Stanley Milgram: people will do horrific things if ordered to by a person in authority.

            First, the problem as constructed guarantees the philosopher’s victim (the person flipping the switch) will be made to blame for a tragedy that can’t even be considered that person’s fault under the most theological forms of dualism. Indeed, the proper response for similar real-world situations is to not interfere with critical industrial safety infrastructure in a crisis unless you’re qualified to do so. How do you know the brakes really have failed, it’s not part of a movie set, or that you’re not about to cause an even worse disaster?

            When you start to make it more realistic, such as by positing an actual trained rail engineer controlling the trolley…it either remains an exercise in blame (it’s his fault the brakes failed?) or the scenario ceases to be plausible (he applies the brakes and nobody dies).

            …and the pattern persists with any other such situation you might wish to suggest.

            The absolute closest one gets to realistic is medical triage…and, again, you don’t actually learn anything applicable from the Trolley Problem for triage. Mostly, you do the most you can with what you have at the moment and do your best to not blame yourself for the horror that’s unfolding around you.




            • Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

              I guess the trolley problem tells us a lot about Ben’s moral instincts … 😄


          • Diane G.
            Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

            Perhaps the more interesting questions are things like why do people assume there is a right answer, that they can know it, and immediately set their minds to figuring it out because they’e told to? Like Ben, I’m reminded of some of the more questionable psych experiments in which subjects are misled about the actual question being asked. (But at least those are experiments, not just mind games.)

            (BTW, I realize the guy is fat because that’s supposed to be more likely to stop a trolley than, say, an anorexic, but the wording of this scenario always strikes me as fat-shaming.)

            • Posted August 9, 2017 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

              I like to view moral philosophy as an introspective art, where the goal isn’t to find the right answer, but to as precisely as possible articulate a person’s feelings. Instead of focusing on word flow and word sound, you focus exclusively on word meaning.

        • Posted July 12, 2017 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

          And I, Robot (2004), where the hero is saved by a robot over a little girl:

          “I was the logical choice. It calculated that I had a 45% chance of survival. Sarah only had an 11% chance. That was somebody’s baby. 11% is more than enough. A human being would’ve known that.”

          • Diane G.
            Posted July 12, 2017 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

            That’s a better premise for debate than the stupid trolley problem!

            And let’s not forget Sophie’s Choice.

            • Posted July 12, 2017 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

              Ah! Of course!

            • rickflick
              Posted July 13, 2017 at 5:57 am | Permalink

              Premise for debate: 3 AM. Trump slumped on the sofa at the top of Trump Tower sulking about something on Fox and Friends. As a distraction he begins to ponder a preemptive strike and against North Korea. He begins a tweet. “Should I, or shouldn’t I…”

              • Diane G.
                Posted July 13, 2017 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

                Let’s see…business as usual vs. apocalypse…yep, that’s a toughie.

                (So leave it to him to get it rong…)

            • Merilee
              Posted July 13, 2017 at 7:57 am | Permalink

              Sophie’s Choice broke my heart, and I read it and saw it before I even had kids.

              • Diane G.
                Posted July 13, 2017 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

                Same here.

                (Only after my kids were around the same ages did I understand her choice.)

          • Posted July 13, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

            The human’s response isn’t that hard to summarize in numbers.

            The hero had a 45% chance of living another couple decades the baby had an 11% chance of living the better part of a century. Also, adults are statistically more likely to risk their own lives to save the life of a random child stranger than to save the life of a random adult stranger. Factor that appropriately into the robot’s calculations and it probably would have tipped the scales in favor of the child. Increase the sophistication of the calculus sufficiently and it’ll get as close as makes no difference.

            Or maybe not. Again, not all humans would have saved the girl, either.




    • Diane G.
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Perfect! Hope Ben G. sees this! 🙂

      • Posted July 12, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        Just did. PtI nailed it!

        The philosophical nonsense is so far removed from reality that it has as much bearing on modern ethics as the ancient “elements” (water, fire, etc.) do on quantum mechanics.



  20. Posted July 12, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    A different kind of answer to the moral or ethical problem about what to do when faced with potential deaths of fellow human beings:

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      And one of the main rescuers, Jessica Simmons, told the News Herald: “I got to the end, and I know I’m a really good swimmer,”… I practically lived in a pool. I knew I could get out there and get to them.”

      Because sometimes, it’s that one person who is determined to make a difference and does.

  21. Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    It appears the originator of that video is E.J. Masicampo and the child in the video is his son. He posted the video on August 31, 2016 here, on YouTube.

    E.J. Masicampo says on YouTube, “I’m teaching a moral psychology class this semester, and we spent part of the first day discussing the trolley problem, which is a frequently used ethical dilemma in discussions of morality. When I returned home that night and was playing trains with my son, I thought it would be interesting to see his response to the trolley problem. I recorded his response so that I could share and discuss it with my class, given especially that we also will be discussing moral development from birth onward. My wife and I are constantly talking with our son about how properly to treat others — so this has been teachable moment both for my class and for our son!”

    It’s puzzling that a person claiming to be E.J. Masicampo would post here as “Benjay.”

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      I’m not so sure it’s the same person! In a comment that I trashed (he’s out the door), he said he WOULD have deleted it but he forgot his password. That seems unlikely to me, as if you’re already posting on Twitter, you can delete a tweet without entering your password.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Highly doubt there’s any connection. If you click on Benjay’s Gravatar (nice image there, eh?) and from there to his YT channel, Google-whatever homepage, etc., you’ll not find this vid or anything at all related.

      IMO this person’s just been a provocateur since he showed up a while back.

  22. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Philosophy is classically divided into 3 major branches:

    1) Natural philosophy (Newton outlined his physics in “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”)

    2) Moral philosophy- no scientist jeers this.

    3) Metaphysical philosophy

    Now, many philosophers in that 3rd territory are opposed to metaphysical schemes as overly speculative.

    This, if you are deeply opposed to theology (like David Hume) you are more or less opposed to 1/6th of philosophy.

    The science-religion dichotomy in an earlier way might have been framed as a natural-philosophy vs. metaphysical philosophy dichotomy.

    It is strongly suspected (though not certain) that the word “philosophy” was coined by Pythagoras.

  23. Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    There is a movement (which I have found dubious) called “philosophy for children”. Now hands on!

  24. Posted July 13, 2017 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    For a child, it’s sometimes just creating the best effect….

  25. Posted August 17, 2017 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Oh, Oh! is right!

%d bloggers like this: