Monday, January 14, 2008

The Collateral Paradox

Trying to think about the crucial difference between the Train and the Hospital scenarios (as described in this post at Show-Me) got me thinking about the following pair of scenarios:
......In the first scenario you are a busy person who sometimes gives to charity (whenever you feel guilty), so you have set up an account so that some money is automatically donated to a good charity every month (without you having to think about it)—in effect, you are improving the lives of ten poor people (e.g. educating their children, and providing health cover). One day you see an advert by a much more efficient (but no less reliable) charity, who can help five times as many poor people with the same amount of money; fifty people could be saved, instead of only ten, you think. So you call your bank and alter your details accordingly.
......The second scenario is similar, except that the original charity paid their workers slightly less and instead spent the money on sending you information about the ten people you were helping (e.g. photos of them, and some letters from some of them). You were usually too busy to bother reading all that (more advertising, you thought), but as you picked up the phone to call your bank (as above) you happened to glance at one of the photos (some family looking hopeful). Before your money could help anyone else, it would have to be taken away from them, you think; so you leave things as they are (and get on with your busy life).
......But why should a mere photo make such a difference?

3 comments:

Hallq said...

I'm not sure of the puzzle here. Yes, you can get people to do things that aren't rational by playing to their emotions. On the other hand, as you've worded it, the slightly more interesting issue is the fact that looking at the photo happened to prompt a certain line of thinking. A book can do the same, and it would be silly to ask "how can a mere book make a difference?"

Enigman said...

Hi Hallq; yeah, the two scenarios don't prove anything, or hit one (like the Train and Hospital do), but maybe their very blandness (compared with train wrecks and murderous doctors) and similarity (whereas I may go to hospital, I doubt I'll be tied to tracks) could therefore be useful.

In the first scenario you are thinking about helping people as you pick up the phone, including those you are already helping; you know that they are people (with human faces) sufficiently for you to want to give them some of your money... so the photo should not be very informative, or even get you thinking along apposite new lines.

I think that, as you say, you have an emotional response to the photo; and the first scenario seems rational at first (5 > 1), so it would be a bit paradoxical were merely seeing that photo to reveal that it was actually wrong. (Maybe the dispassionate view does not always give the clearest view of what is right.)

I think that the Train is described in such a way that you are thinking like in the first scenario, and the Hospital so that you are thinking like in the second, and that the crucial difference is something subtle, something of no more importance in itself than the seeing of that photo (or perhaps a muddle of idiosyncratic trivia, which would explain our difficulty in stating the solution to the Trolley paradox). (More likely I'm just not very good at imitating Wittgenstein:)

Enigman said...

Although if a missile was going to hit a city of 50,000 and you could divert it, making it go straight towards someone walking a dog instead, it would seem to be wrong not to (as someone said in the comments at Show-Me) even if that would be murder. (What if it was headed towards only 50, or 5 or 2; what if it would only be 99% likely to hit the dog-walker, or 51% or 1%?)

But then, in the Hospital case, if you were not a doctor (with those duties) but had all the required skills, and if the one child was no healthier than the five would be were they to receive organs... and what if it was 50 who could be saved? Whether or not it would be right, or when it would be right, there is still the puzzle of why so many people (who are not experts or anything) see the Train and the Hospital as so different (one heroic, one murder).