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Trolleyology

May 9, 2015

Last week, I attended a one-day conference for Open University Postgraduate Philosophy students, in which each of us presented a paper based on our research; and mine was on “Why is the Face Special?”, as part of my thesis Should a Liberal State Ban the Burqa? In the ensuing discussion, one of the academics accused my paper of being trolleyology: a completely new word to me. But this is what it means: trolleyology is making speculations which appeal to people’s intuitions, but which can’t be substantiated by reason or evidence. A pejorative term, of course.

It has an interesting etymology. There’s a famous thought experiment in moral philosophy. If there was a large, heavy railway trolley (I guess this means a carriage) which is hurtling down the track towards a group of five railway workers, and if the only way you can save them is to switch the points so that the trolley is diverted to hit and kill another railway worker on another line (but there’s only one of him), should you do so? Well, many people’s instinct is that you should, because you are sacrificing one life in order to save five. But then there are various refinements. Suppose you can’t reach the switch in time to change the points, but there happens to be a fat man sitting on a handy bridge, and if you push him over he’ll land in the right place and switch the points, thus saving the five workers – but the one worker will die and so will the fat man – then what should you do? (Etc etc)

As a result of this thought experiment, which has been exhaustively discussed in moral philosophy for the last thirty years or so, any philosophical speculation which depends on intuitions tends to be dismissed as “trolleyology”.

Great word. But my paper wasn’t trolleyology!

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