When The Good Place episode “The Trolley Problem” won one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, the Hugo, in the category of best dramatic presentation, short form, I celebrated. I celebrated not because I loved the episode (in fact, I had so far only seen a couple of The Good Place’s earlier episodes) but because, as a philosophy professor aiming to build bridges between academic philosophy and popular science fiction, the awarding of a Hugo to a show starring a professor of philosophy discussing a famous philosophical problem seemed to confirm that science fiction fans see some of the same synergies I see between science fiction and philosophy.
I do think the synergies are there and that the fans see and value them – as also revealed by the enduring popularity of The Matrix, and by West World, and Her, and Black Mirror, among others – but “The Trolley Problem”, considered as a free-standing episode, fumbles the job. (Below, I will suggest a twist by which The Good Place could redeem itself in later episodes.)
Yeah, I’m going to be fussy when maybe I should just cheer and praise. And I’m going to take the episode more philosophically seriously than maybe I should, treating it as not just light humor. But taking good science fiction philosophically seriously is important to me – and that means engaging critically. So here we go.
The Philosophical Trolley Problem
The trolley problem – the classic academic philosophy version of the trolley problem – concerns a pair of scenarios.
In one scenario, the Switch case, you are standing beside a railroad track watching a runaway railcar (or “trolley”) headed toward five people it will surely kill if you do nothing. You are standing by a switch, however, and you can flip the switch to divert the trolley onto a side track, saving the five people. Unfortunately, there is one person on the side track who will be killed if you divert the trolley. Question: Should you flip the switch?
In another scenario, the Push case, you are standing on a footbridge when you see the runaway railcar headed toward the five people. In this case, there is no switch. You do, however, happen to be standing beside a hiker with a heavy backpack, who you could push off the bridge into the path of the trolley, which will then grind to a halt on his body, killing him and saving the five. (You are too light to stop the trolley with your own body.) He is leaning over the railing, heedless of you, so you could just push him over. Question: Should you push the hiker?
The interesting thing about these problems is that most people say it’s okay to flip the switch in Switch but not okay to push the hiker in Push, despite the fact that in both cases you appear to be killing one person to save five. Is there really a meaningful difference between the cases? If so, what is it? Or are our ordinary intuitions about one or the other case wrong?
It’s a lovely puzzle, much, much debated in academic philosophy, often with intricate variations on the cases. (Here’s one of my papers about it.)
The Problem with “The Trolley Problem”
“The Trolley Problem” episode nicely sets up some basic trolley scenarios, adding also a medical case of killing one to save five (an involuntary organ donor). The philosophy professor character, Chidi, is teaching the material to the other characters.
The episode stumbles by trying to do two conflicting things.
First, it seizes the trope of the philosophy professor who can’t put his theories into practice. The demon Michael sets up a simulated trolley, headed toward five victims, with Chidi at the helm. Chidi is called on to make a fast decision. He hesitates, agonizing, and crashes into the five. Micheal reruns the scenario with several variations, and it’s clear that Chidi, faced with a practical decision requiring swift action, can’t actually figure out what’s best. (However, Chidi is clear that he wouldn’t cut up a healthy patient in an involuntary organ donor case.)
Second, incompatibly, the episode wants to affirm Chidi’s moral expertise. Michael, the demon who enjoys torturing humans, can’t seem to take Chidi’s philosophy lessons seriously, despite Chidi’s great knowledge of ethics. Michael tries to win Chidi’s favor by giving him a previously unseen notebook of Kant’s, but Chidi, with integrity that I suppose the viewer is expected to find admirable, casts the notebook aside, seeing it as a bribe. What Chidi really wants is for Michael to recognize his moral expertise. At the climax of the episode, Michael seems to do just this, saying:
Oh, Chidi, I am so sorry. I didn’t understand human ethics, and you do. And it made me feel insecure, and I lashed out. And I really need your help because I feel so lost and vulnerable.
It’s unclear from within the episode whether we are supposed to regard Michael as sincere. Maybe not. Regardless, the viewer is invited to think that it’s what Michael should say, what his attitude should be – and Chidi accepts the apology.
But this resolution hardly fits with Chidi’s failure in actual ethical decision making in the moment (a vice he also reveals in other episodes). Chidi has abstract, theoretical knowledge about ethical quandaries such as the trolley problem, and he is in some ways the most morally admirable of the lead characters, but his failure in vividly simulated trolley cases casts his practical ethical expertise into doubt. Nothing in the episode satisfactorily resolves that practical challenge to Chidi’s expertise, pro or con.
Now, as it happens, I am the world’s leading expert on the ethical behavior of professional ethicists. (Yes, really. Admittedly, the competition is limited.)
The one thing that shows most clearly from my and others’ work on this topic, and which is anyway pretty evident if you spend much time around professional ethicists, is that ethicists, on average, behave more or less similarly to other people of similar social background – not especially better, not especially worse. From the fact that Chidi is a professor of ethics, nothing in particular follows about his moral behavior. Often, indeed, expertise in philosophical ethics appears to become expertise in constructing post-hoc intellectual rationales for what you were inclined to do anyway.
I hope you will agree with me about the following, concerning the philosophy of philosophy: Real ethical understanding is not a matter of what words you speak in classroom moments. It’s a matter of what you choose and what you do habitually, regardless of whether you can tell your friends a handsome story about it, grounded in your knowledge of Kant. It’s not clear that Chidi does have especially good ethical understanding in this practical sense. Moreover, to the extent Chidi does have some such practical ethical understanding, as a somewhat morally admirable person, it is not in virtue of his knowledge of Kant.
Michael should not be so deferential to Chidi’s expertise, and especially he should not be deferential on the basis of Chidi’s training as a philosopher. If, over the seasons, the characters improve morally, it is, or should be, because they learn from the practical situations they find themselves in, not because of Chidi’s theoretical lessons.
How to Partly Redeem “The Trolley Problem”
Thus, the episode, as a stand-alone work, is flawed both in plot (the resolution at climax failing to answer the problem posed by Chidi’s earlier practical indecisiveness) and in philosophy (being too deferential to the expertise of theoretical ethicists, in contrast with the episode’s implicit criticism of the practical, on-the-trolley value of Chidi’s theoretical ethics).
When the whole multi-season arc of The Good Place finally resolves, here’s what I hope happens, which in my judgment would partly redeem “The Trolley Problem”: Michael turns out, all along, to have been the most ethically insightful character, becoming Chidi’s teacher rather than the other way around.
Bio: Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside, and a cooperating member of UCR’s program in Speculative Fiction and Cultures of Science. His short fiction has been published in Clarkesworld, F&SF, and elsewhere. He regularly blogs at The Splintered Mind on topics in philosophy, psychology, and science fiction. His third book, tentatively titled Jerks, Zombie Robots, and Other Philosophical Misadventures is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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