A Rational Choice?

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A Rational Choice?

Postby BadgerJelly on October 14th, 2017, 2:53 am 

I have posted this elsewhere so if you've seen it already please don't give the game away ;)

Here is the hypothetical situation ...

You are on a train track with no hope of stopping the locomotive and can pull a lever to change tracks. No matter what you do you have to choose either track A or track B.

On track A there is a man who is 70% likely to murder someone.
On track B there are two men who are both 50% likely to murder someone.

Which track do you take?

note: explain your decision as best you can.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby zetreque on October 14th, 2017, 3:23 am 

If I am on the train track I'd get my arse off of it before getting hit.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby doogles on October 14th, 2017, 3:37 am 

I have to have a go just for the sake of having a go.

Zetrique has displayed common sense, which I like.

In my case I realise that by the time I've pondered the question, the train has thundered past and knocked off the idiot/s who was/were too slow to follow Zetrique's sensible decision.

I've handled those manual line-changers and could operate one at a pinch. But if the train was willing to stop while I made up my mind, I think I would choose to knock off the 70-percenter. The other two have as much chance of not murdering anyone, as of murdering someone and have less chance of being a threat as the 70-percenter.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby BadgerJelly on October 14th, 2017, 3:55 am 

Doogles -

The other two have as much chance of not murdering anyone, as of murdering someone and have less chance of being a threat as the 70-percenter.


That is not strictly true.

The person on track A does have a 70% of killing someone, but the two people on track B don't have a combined probability that agrees with your statement. They both, meaning individually, have a 50% of killing someone.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Braininvat on October 14th, 2017, 9:39 am 

Here is what can happen if the Track B boys are unleashed:

1. One murders, the other doesn't. Or vice versa. 1 death results. (.5 P)
2. Both murder. 2 deaths result. (.25 P)
3. Neither murders. No deaths. (.25 P)

There is only a 1 in 4 chance that neither of the B boys will murder anyone.

Which means there is a 3 in 4 chance someone will die. And a 1 in 4 chance TWO people will die.

So they comprise a greater threat than the 70 percenter.
75%, as it happens.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Dave_C on October 14th, 2017, 10:25 am 

Agree with BiV but.... if you pick a track, isn't it YOU who has killed 1 or 2 people?
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby BadgerJelly on October 14th, 2017, 10:41 am 

I would add that if the person on track A was 30% likely to kill and persons on track B were both 60% likely to kill I'd still go for track A ;)

I guess you're starting to see what I've done here?
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Serpent on October 14th, 2017, 12:11 pm 

If we're using "murder" in the strict legal sense, I'll choose track B.
A 50% or 70% probability of being a murderer puts them all in the highly aggressive and dangerous category: all three will certainly do other kinds of damage before they reach the point murder. And where is the guarantee that any murderer stops at a single victim? How do I know they're not Paul and Karla Bernardo, whose odds of going through with their murder(s) are only 50% individually, but rise if they're together? Who says both of the B's won't do a mass shooting, while A will might only kill his mean, rich uncle?
Why not take out two potential threats while you have the immunity?
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby BadgerJelly on October 14th, 2017, 12:14 pm 

Serpent » October 15th, 2017, 12:11 am wrote:If we're using "murder" in the strict legal sense, I'll choose track B.
A 50% or 70% probability of being a murderer puts them all in the highly aggressive and dangerous category: all three will certainly do other kinds of damage before they reach the point murder. And where is the guarantee that any murderer stops at a single victim? Who says both of the B's won't do a mass shooting, while A will might only kill his mean, rich uncle?
Why not take out two potential threats while you have the immunity?


It's a hypothetical so you only have the actual information present to base your decisions off. I could easily alter the scenario to cancel out what you are suggesting so really your just adding to the hypothetical and avoiding the point of what I was trying to reveal.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby RJG on October 14th, 2017, 12:18 pm 

I vote "A", ...less overall people killed.

If taking Track A, then 2.0 total dead people (the 1 on track A + .5 + .5 from Track B)
If taking Track B, then 2.7 total dead people (the 2 on track B + .7 from Track A)

2.0 is less than 2.7


Badger Jelly wrote:I would add that if the person on track A was 30% likely to kill and persons on track B were both 60% likely to kill I'd still go for track A ;)

I agree with Badger. "A" is still better.

If taking Track A, then 2.2 total dead people (the 1 on track A + .6 + .6 from Track B)
If taking Track B, then 2.3 total dead people (the 2 on track B + .3 from Track A)

2.2 is less than 2.3
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Braininvat on October 14th, 2017, 1:06 pm 

Dave_C » October 14th, 2017, 7:25 am wrote:Agree with BiV but.... if you pick a track, isn't it YOU who has killed 1 or 2 people?


This is where the problem is cleverly constructed. The train is out of control, so someone will die, regardless of your actions. So, not be callous, but one of the deaths is a "freebie." You can't prevent one death from happening, that is certain.

What your are choosing, then, if you go down track B, is an additional certain death. And you are eliminating a 75% chance of another death of an innocent person (I made that assumption, that their potential victims are innocent, in the absence of any more information as to their potential victim pool). And a 25% chance of the murder of TWO innocents.

So, for me, the question was one of being sure to spare one sociopath, or being able to possibly save two innocent lives.

HOWEVER, if I posited that any sociopath is capable of rehabilitation, then of course I would choose Track A. One dies, 2 survive. The 2 start getting therapy right away.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Serpent on October 14th, 2017, 1:06 pm 

BadgerJelly » October 14th, 2017, 11:14 am wrote:
It's a hypothetical so you only have the actual information present to base your decisions off. I could easily alter the scenario to cancel out what you are suggesting so really your just adding to the hypothetical and avoiding the point of what I was trying to reveal.

A 50% chance of being a murderer is still waaaay above average. They're still awful people.
But I wasn't serious; nor was I doing math; just being rational, as you suggested.
Emotionally, I'd probably go with least immediate loss of life: track A

(Of course, you know the joke's on us: that was a fourteen-year-old rape victim on her way from a dark red state to a blue one for an abortion. The other two were terrorists, laying explosive on the track: their 50% chance of success depended on whether we chose to have a train hit them before they could wire up the detonator.)
Last edited by Serpent on October 14th, 2017, 2:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Dave_C on October 15th, 2017, 9:16 pm 

Hmmm...... ok, so we accept it is acceptable to pull the lever to kill, or allow to die, either A or B? We have an instance of a single individual (you, pulling the lever) of a person who is 100% murderer. Should we throw ourselves on the track instead? At least that would eliminate a person who is a guaranteed murderer?

It seems one argument against this conclusion is that we're not actually killing anyone per se. The train is going to kill one or two people, we are just the decision of which way the train goes. Someone's going to buy it, so it isn't the person who pulls the lever who's guilty, we're just minimizing the potential for murder of others.

Imagine for example, there's someone that fell out of an airplane and they have a few minutes before they hit the ground. That person is surely going to die regardless of what we do, just as one or two of those people on the rails are surely going to die. So would it be wrong to shoot that person before they hit the ground? Let's say we enjoy sniper rifles and we'd like to see if we can hit that person on the way down. Or we're flying an old WW1 fighter, the Red Baron's plane, and we want to shoot the person on the way down "just for fun". If we do so, are we not then guilty of killing that person? Or are we innocent because that person is already as good as dead?

I think that person who shoots the other on the way to their death is guilty by any legal standard. I also think a person who interferes in or influences in any way, the death of another is guilty by any legal standard. I believe you have a choice to act or not to act. And if you act, it would seem you may be guilty of murder yourself. And if you don't act, you can't be held responsible.

This may have some pertinence to atrocities of war. If a soldier is ordered to shoot a POW without justification, and if that soldier believes someone else will shoot the POW if they do not, that soldier may feel they have justification to shoot because they were ordered to do so. That defense is generally not accepted of course, and the soldier is therefore guilty of a war crime.

I can see a line of reasoning that suggests one can't do anything about the 3 people on the RR tracks without becoming guilty of murder.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby BadgerJelly on October 15th, 2017, 10:08 pm 

Dave C -

From wiki:

Murder is the unlawful killing of another human without justification or valid excuse, especially the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought.


So, I would not regard the choice you take as being one of a murderer. You are merely in a position where you can alter the number of deaths and make judgements about who deserves to live.

It would be a better problem if I simply reworded this and took the "murder" out of the problem. A friend of mine pointed out that was what he found himself caught on after admitting he'd fallen for the assumption of "bad guy".

If I was to rewrite I think I'd say "chance of killing someone", "will cause death of another", or such a thing. Maybe that would drastically alter how people viewed the problem though?

There are a whole number of other thoughts that come to mind here. I have been listening to Russell Brand recently about addiction. In relation to that we could even ask to what degree society is responsible for the murderous actions and to what degree the individuals are responsible.

I am not suggesting the murderers of the world are victims, but at the same time I am to some degree. If society is meant to look after its citizens then it is the job of society to recognize these volatile individuals and put safe guard in place for their benefit and the benefit of their potential victims. Just because someone is prone to violence doesn't mean we should lock them up in case they commit murder in a fitful rage where they, quite literally, may lose conscious control.

And if you don't act, you can't be held responsible.


Funnily enough I regard this as one of the most immoral choices. Not choosing is a choice. I can understand it if we're talking about someone lacking the capacity to understand the situation and being utterly confounded by it even after they've tried to think the problem through.

Someone else on another forum said something along these lines and I then asked another question they have not yet answered. If the there were 100 people on track A and a train steaming toward them, and 1 person on track B, would you not act?

In my mind what you really seem to be avoiding is the guilt involved. Would you rather deny responsibility and feel better about yourself, or save 99 lives? I would switch the tracks and let one person die instead of 100 and I would feel pretty bad about it, and it may haunt me for some time.

Then we can get down to more difficult problems and ask what if I could change positions with that one guy too? Would I really be willing to sacrifice my life for 101 lives? I like to think I would, be if I am honest I am far from convinced in a real life situation I would.

For me this is the point of hypothetical questions. I make the decision difficult and hopefully prime myself to act in the future as I would wish a good person to act.

Here is a quote from Alan Watts talking about Carl Jung (Alan Watts on Carl Jung - YouTube vid 10:00):

"He was the sort of man who could feel anxious, and afraid, and guilty; without feeling ashamed of being this way. In other words he understood that an integrated person is not simply a person who eliminated the sense of guilt or the sense of anxiety from life, who's fearless, and wooden, and kind of a sage of stone; he's a person who feels all these things, but has no recriminations against himself for feeling them."
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Braininvat on October 15th, 2017, 10:33 pm 

Love that Watts quote. I would like to add one thing about this -

Then we can get down to more difficult problems and ask what if I could change positions with that one guy too? Would I really be willing to sacrifice my life for 101 lives? I like to think I would, be if I am honest I am far from convinced in a real life situation I would.


First, these conundra are set up so you have an either/or choice, and can't stop the train or trolley with your own body. That said, I think most of us are guilty, in a very obvious way, of not sacrificing ourselves or our material wealth, to save the lives of others. If I were to give all my money to a charity that helped children dying of tropical diseases, cholera, malnutrition, in some 3rd world place, I would ruin my comfortable life. And I would easily save 100 lives of children in dire need of help. In a purely passive sense, I have placed higher value on my life and the lives of my loved ones, than on those of people in a faraway place. That seems to be how we humans are wired. We don't see ourselves as pulling the trigger on a Bengali child when we hold onto our paychecks - that is such an abstraction that we can't present it to ourselves as us having a real relationship to the 3rd world.

The "he might murder someone later' problem presens a similar situation - it seems hypothetical to us, whereas running someone down with a train seems pretty up close and personal. So many would abandon the controls and let the train go down whichever track it goes. Others would run over the one guy on Track A, in order to spare 2 other lives. We don't feel responsible for whatever those 2 might do later. "I do me, you do you." as the old saying goes. We really don't know who the people are on the tracks, or how anyone could conceivably come up with such precise odds that a person would murder another.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Serpent on October 15th, 2017, 10:49 pm 

Hypotheses are of very limited utility in the formation of real decisions, or moral positions.
The aspect I was trying to point out is that that we never have sufficient reliable intel to make a truly rational choice: pretty much every decision we actually make is emotional - and in most cases, we don't even know enough about ourselves to know what we'll decide until we watch ourselves doing it.

That's where the guy throwing himself under the train - or on the grenade, or into the river - comes in. Heroes don't usually know that they are potential heroes, until it's happened and somebody tells them so.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby mitchellmckain on October 15th, 2017, 10:53 pm 

As a purely mathematical problem, I would use expectations where you mutiply the probability by the numerical result (in this case the number of deaths).
A. .7 chance times 1 death equals and expectation of .7 deaths
B. .25 chance of 0 deaths + .5 chance of 1 death + .25 chance of 2 deaths equals expectation of 1.0 deaths
Thus mathematically choice A is the better of the two.

This is when you don't count the deaths of the potential murderers. With those included you get.
A. 1.0 chance of 1 death + .7 deaths = 1.7 expected deaths.
B. 1.0 chance of 1 death + 1.0 deaths = 2.0 expected deaths.

However, as an ethical problem there are other considerations. Many like myself would only feel obliged to get involved when the situation is ethically unambiguous. One can feel justified in ignoring this situation and taking no action on the grounds that it isn't your responsibility to mess with track. After all, it is quite possible that you do not have all the information and by interfering you are causing a disaster rather than preventing a small margin of a disaster. This risk is still there when the ambiguity is not involved but when it is more clear you might think it is worth the risk.

You can fix this aspect of the problem with a slight alteration of the question. Make both A and B alternate tracks and the track the train is currently on will result in many more deaths with certainty. This puts much more pressure on choosing A or B. After all, certain deaths easily outweighs what is merely possible deaths even when the expectation is 1.0 deaths. AND acting according to what people might do is a far cry from acting on what is actually happening right in front of you.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby doogles on October 16th, 2017, 4:49 pm 

The real premise in this hypothetical is that three dopey buggers are standing on train tracks waiting to be hit by a locomotive while we calculate odds and logical outcomes.

Let the first locomotive go the way the tracks are set and do its job, and then divert the next train onto the second track. lol
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby mitchellmckain on October 16th, 2017, 7:33 pm 

mitchellmckain » October 15th, 2017, 9:53 pm wrote:This is when you don't count the deaths of the potential murderers. With those included you get.
A. 1.0 chance of 1 death + .7 deaths = 1.7 expected deaths.
B. 1.0 chance of 1 death + 1.0 deaths = 2.0 expected deaths.

Nobody caught my mistake on this part. In one case there are two people (possible murderers) on the track.
Also my labeling sucks...

Train on track B: 1.0 chance of 2 deaths + .7 expected deaths caused by person on track A = 2.7 expected deaths.
Train on track A: 1.0 chance of 1 death + 1.0 expected deaths caused by persons on track B = 2.0 expected deaths.

So when you include the possible murderers in the expected deaths, sending the train down track A is better.

However if you don't care about the possible murderers on the tracks then sending the train down track B is better.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Braininvat on October 17th, 2017, 9:37 am 

Helps to read the rest of the thread.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby BadgerJelly on October 20th, 2017, 1:36 am 

Serpent » October 16th, 2017, 10:49 am wrote:Hypotheses are of very limited utility in the formation of real decisions, or moral positions.
The aspect I was trying to point out is that that we never have sufficient reliable intel to make a truly rational choice: pretty much every decision we actually make is emotional - and in most cases, we don't even know enough about ourselves to know what we'll decide until we watch ourselves doing it.

That's where the guy throwing himself under the train - or on the grenade, or into the river - comes in. Heroes don't usually know that they are potential heroes, until it's happened and somebody tells them so.


I would agree that it has limitations, like everything. I would certainly not say it is VERY limited given that our basic understanding about the world, scientific ideas, and general life planning are all based off some form of hypothetical abstraction.

I think this has been covered by mitch elsewhere in regard to how "training" works. Soldiers, firemen and policemen go through certain situations where they role play. I would add that to physically act out such things with others in role play would be more immediately useful to some people. If you have a vivid imagination you can perform these tasks yourself pretty well too (but I would guess that physically acting out is always likely to be of more benefit for most hypothetical scenarios.)

See this thread for a better idea of what I mean : http://www.sciencechatforum.com/viewtopic.php?f=47&t=32281
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Serpent on October 20th, 2017, 9:38 pm 

Okay.
But I doubt you can get many people to take turns standing on Tracks A and B.
Plus, I imagine a lot of Ethics Coaches can come up with a lot of different nasty hypothetical emergency situations. When do you get time to train for all of them and still learn a trade?
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Infinite_Observer on October 21st, 2017, 2:37 am 

I would say change no tract. If someone's on it they know the risk of death if you dont know u will soon learn. What **** my head up the worst is the instance when the train splatters you.the time between life and death is infantismal. It is a fraction of a fraction of a second. Would your consciousness think you were still alive? That is my conundrum
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Infinite_Observer on October 21st, 2017, 2:44 am 

I wont name my profession profession but I have killed people as hard as that sounds. Only someone who has killed another consciousness can understand its like an instant on off switch. Your brain shuts down in an such a small instance of time no live brain can imagine. On then off in 1/100 of a second. Would your consciousness even know?
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Infinite_Observer on October 21st, 2017, 2:49 am 

As I say this and ask the question i feel guilty but I only hope people can see past the politics amd look at this question for what it is
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby BadgerJelly on October 21st, 2017, 3:57 am 

Serpent » October 21st, 2017, 9:38 am wrote:Okay.
But I doubt you can get many people to take turns standing on Tracks A and B.
Plus, I imagine a lot of Ethics Coaches can come up with a lot of different nasty hypothetical emergency situations. When do you get time to train for all of them and still learn a trade?


I am not talking about "training ethics". Nor am I saying that I try and imagine every single possible difference of a problem.

The example of training was just that. You can choose to take the hypothetical at face value and explore it or not. The value of doing so can only ever be realized fully by you as an individual.

There is a good example above by Infinite_Observer to ignore the hypothetical and disarm it. Rather than explore your deep concerns about the situation and what feeling and thoughts these may conjure, you can just view the hypothetical situation as "unrealistic" and therefore move on.

If however you explore the situation and expand on it bit by bit and present yourself with conflicting opinions, you can then understand your possible sense of guilt, the value of your guilt next to the possible outcomes. You can explore the dilemma rationally and emotionally, and then look at yourself honestly and see what extremes would push you to commit this or that act.

Generally in life we think about the future and imagine different possible outcomes if we do X or Y. I am not suggesting we can literally weigh every decision we make with rigor, but I would suggest that for the situations we deem serious we're likely to put some concerted effort into lookin gat the pros and cons. This kind of hypothetical is merely "training" for such things in the future and is only dictated by your own position/s.

You may ask yourself is one newborns life is worth more than a elderly cancer riddled man? What I find myself doing is putting myself in the situation of the old guy. If I was him would I prefer to die for the sake of a new life? I would say yes. Then I would ask how it makes me feel to think such a thought AND how it makes me feel to express this publicly on a forum. Then I would ask myself for some questions I can see that if I answered some questions publicly then I may not be so willing to commit to the same kind of answer because I would position myself in such a way where I would be judged by others and even punished for doing so.

See here for a good honest example of this:

As I say this and ask the question i feel guilty but I only hope people can see past the politics amd look at this question for what it is


There was a need felt here to make this additional comment so as not to look like some kind of 'bad' person. We have a nasty tendency to act in ways we often wish not to act because of social expectations.

If I was to say I would happily kill a man and eat him so I didn't starve to death then I would be shunned. The point for me is to look for a situation where I would act like this and realise what kind of things I am capable of, what kind of a danger I am, and on the flip side, what kind of person I could be if I harnessed this understanding of myself in the opposite direction.

I think many humans, if not all, probably refuse to admit they've done wrong at some point in their lives. Instead they blame circumstances or others. We have a tendency to avoid such self investigation and instead bury it (sometimes this is necessary too!) To admit to a mistake and to explore the reasons what what we deem as a failure help us to strengthen our future resolve. Th ebest thing we have to guard against making mistakes (which we will do) is our ability to conceptualise possible futures and explore abstractions of future scenarios.

This I would say is a very powerful tool at our disposal. It is one that can help understand, and refine, how we value all that life has to offer. Having a more refined and fluid understanding of what I deem "good" or "bad" is certainly of use in directing myself toward the future.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Serpent on October 21st, 2017, 12:08 pm 

BadgerJelly » October 21st, 2017, 2:57 am wrote:The example of training was just that. You can choose to take the hypothetical at face value and explore it or not. The value of doing so can only ever be realized fully by you as an individual.

But that's what I thought I was doing initially - exploring the hypothetical situation for pitfalls, logical contradictions and moral conundra. I'm less concerned with guilt than with the probability of paralyzing indecision. I sincerely believe that our instincts and emotions are better at handling a no-win situation, or any kind of emergency, than our intellect, however well trained that might be.
You may also realize it`s not the first time most have us have been posed this, or a similar, problem, so we`re not approaching it with the innocent open-mindedness of youth.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Braininvat on October 21st, 2017, 1:49 pm 

Given the OP conundrum, I hope "well trained" isn't a pun. Hehe.

After several posts, and mulling over you all's postings, I find myself back to Track A and firmly believing that is the choice I would make if I had to make a choice. The only thing I really know, is that option kills one less person than Track B. That's sort of the "real world" answer, since it presumes we have some power, as moral agents, to do something about the murder potential of the 2 survivors on Track B.

It sort of fits nicely with Kant's first formulation of the Categorical Imperative. If we make "do what results in less loss of life" to be a universal principle, that seems a better outcome for humanity, than if we start formulating moral judgments about strangers as to their murder potential in the future. That seems but a short distance down the path from Philip K. ****'s "Pre-Crime" bureau, which is a rather dystopian and fascistic outcome. Human suffering, as a whole, is likely to increase if we start branding people with potential murder percentages. That "50%" label could well be applied to political dissidents they want to keep locked up.
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Braininvat on October 21st, 2017, 1:51 pm 

Apparently, the censor thinks the great sci-fi writer's last name is a naughty word. OK, then, Philip K. Richard (diminutive form starting with D)
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Re: A Rational Choice?

Postby Serpent on October 21st, 2017, 2:07 pm 

Imagine having to go through life and career with that name! And he carried it off magnificently.
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