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The Trolley Problem and the Making of a Superhero for Transhuman Times
Steve Fuller   Nov 9, 2016   Ethical Technology  

A slight amended version of this article appears on the 24 October 2016 edition of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Religion & Ethics website, under the title: “The ‘Trolley Problem’ and the Problem of Moral Progress: Postscript to the Trial of Jesus for Transhuman Times

The discourse of transhumanism is notorious for its liberal appeal to ‘enhancement’: ‘physical enhancement’, ‘cognitive enhancement’, ‘moral enhancement’, etc. Much if not most of the discussion is speculative – but in any case, it is aspirational.


‘Enhancement’ is presented as something that can improve our lives and quite possibly solve the deepest problems of mind, body and society. Prior to transhumanism, perhaps the only moral philosophy that unequivocally stood behind the proposition that by knowing more we can lead better lives is utilitarianism. In what follows, I consider what ‘cognitive enhancement’ might deliver vis-à-vis ‘moral progress’ once we bring together a thought experiment associated with contemporary utilitarianism and one of the most important decisions to shape the course of human history. We shall see that science fiction has an important role to play in fuelling this ultimate test of whether moral progress is possible. The protagonist of this tale gradually comes into view, a flawed superhero, Trolley Man.

Jesus on the Trolley’s Path

The ‘Trolley Problem’ is a standard thought experiment in contemporary ethics designed to test one’s intuitions about a battery of issues relating to the value of human life. It especially aims to test utilitarianism’s appeal. The basic idea is that you’re in a position to divert a runaway trolley from hitting many people to hitting just one by turning a switch on the rails. A straight utilitarian of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ type should have no problem dealing with this. S/he would divert the trolley to hit the one person who otherwise would not be in the trolley’s way, thereby sparing the many who had been most definitely on the trolley’s path. Of course, this also means that s/he would be instrumental in one innocent person’s death, something s/he wouldn’t have been, had s/he refrained from acting altogether.

Not only utilitarians but also Sartre-style Existentialists would likely find the killing of the one innocent person acceptable because the alternative – namely, to refrain from action -- effectively makes you complicit in the ensuing crash which kills many more people. What distinguishes Sartre from the utilitarians is his stress on the decision’s downside. This is what he meant by ‘dirty hands’: No matter what you do in life, you always end up with blood on your hands.

But can that blood ever be removed or do you just always end up with more blood on your hands when you try to remove it? In Christian theology this is the problem of the absolution of sin: Is it possible, and if so on what basis? Hegel notoriously held that history was about the future ultimately ‘absolving’ the sins of the past, all of which come to be seen as having been committed on behalf of some greater end. This is why Hegel’s philosophy is often called ‘absolute idealism’. Revolutionary Marxism understood it a concrete plan of action.

With all this in mind, consider Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea at the time of Jesus. The kindest but perhaps also the fairest thing that can be said about Pilate when he presided over the trial of Jesus was that he did his best given his failure to see just how momentous his decision turned out to be. But would he have made a better decision, had he known the consequences of the one he took, which was to permit the crucifixion of Jesus?  Thinkers and writers throughout the centuries have thought about this question. Dostoevsky’s tale of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov provides an ironic take, as Jesus is condemned to death a second time by those who know exactly who He is.

Arguably Pilate faced a version of the Trolley Problem when dealing with the fate of Jesus. It was in his gift to release one of two prisoners who would otherwise be put to death: Barabbas or Jesus. Pilate seemed to realize that Jesus was not guilty of any specific crime. Indeed, the Gospel encounters between Pilate and Jesus suggest he thought that Jesus was guilty of no more than perhaps overzealous preaching, and actually goes so far as to make the case publicly for sparing Jesus. Nevertheless, Pilate sensed the weight of public opinion barrelling down like a runaway trolley. Thus, he decided that releasing Barabbas was more likely to keep the peace, given the size and stridency of Barabbas’ supporters. And so he condemned the innocent Jesus to death and kept the peace – at least for a while.

Pilate was a straight utilitarian, or so he might have thought. For Christians this simply highlights the impoverished nature of utilitarian judgements. But it may be that Pilate simply got the utilities wrong because his time horizon was too short. He hadn’t realized that Jesus stood for more than just his few well-behaved followers in the audience, whereas Barabbas was just another flash in the pan prophet whose reach and significance had peaked on the day Pilate was forced to take his decision. Certainly this would have been Hegel’s analysis of the situation. For him, Pilate appears to be a well-meaning guy in need of cognitive enhancement, specifically to acquire a greater grasp on what the future holds.

The simplistic beauty of the Trolley Problem in its normal formulation is that it provides you with infallible knowledge of the consequences of the decision you’re forced to take: either the many or the one is killed. You come into the situation already knowing the future is sealed in one of only two specific ways. To be sure, the decision is tricky enough even on those terms, as you are forced to think about both whether the value of a human life is subject to aggregation (i.e. saving more lives is better than saving one life) whether to refrain from action is itself an action (i.e. there is no such thing as ‘being neutral’) and, most bluntly, whether there is ever any justification for taking an innocent life (especially that of a child who has hardly lived at all).

Nevertheless, the larger issue that colours Pilate’s chequered place in history remains suspended in such a presentation of the Trolley Problem. After all, Pilate may have framed the problem incorrectly because he failed to see the momentousness of the decision he had to take, which to him looked fairly routine, especially given the custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover. For him Jesus just seemed like a classier version of Barabbas rather than his seeing Barabbas a debased version of Jesus. Indeed, Pilate might offer just such an argument in his own defence before a Christian tribunal entrusted with disposing of his soul. It is to this prospect that we now turn. 

The Trial of the Superhumans: Is Knowing More Knowing Better?

An argument in favour of utilitarianism as an ethic is that the salience of its evaluative criteria improves as we make greater scientific and technological progress. After all, utilities need to be measured and calculated, and our skills in those areas have certainly improved with time. Moreover, as we learn more about how the world works, we become better at predicting outcomes, even in complex situations. While such improvements are hard to quantify, it is certainly true that humanity has taken increasingly large and successful calculated risks. This would seem to vindicate that greater benefits accrue from a greater understanding of the causal order, including the consequences of actions, something required of any feasible version of utilitarianism.

With this in mind, one might imagine the deceased Pilate being allowed some time in Purgatory to test the hypothesis implied here: namely, that his moral judgement would improve with more information and enhanced cognitive capacities, which in turn would enable him to intervene more strategically in the causal order to bring greater good to the world. This would certainly take both Pilate’s self-defence and utilitarianism’s self-understanding at face value.

To be sure, utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that is more grudgingly tolerated than openly embraced, even by secular thinkers. Utilitarianism’s fixation on measurement and calculation flattens the texture of lived experience. Its explicit balance sheet approach to value can appear cold and dehumanizing. But maybe this appraisal of utilitarianism is just an unflattering description of how a ‘superhuman’ understanding of the world looks to humans.

We tend to think that we would be humbled in any encounter with superhumans. But if humanity’s relationship with the ‘lower’ animals is any indication, there is no reason to think any such thing. We already know that the animals find us – their supposed superiors – wanting in so many ways, only the most life-threatening of which are comprehensively addressed by animal rights activists. And of course there are numerous Cold War-style science fiction stories in which the good intentions of superior aliens are thwarted by equally well-meaning humans who interpret those efforts as an invasion.

The incommensurability between how ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ beings regard each other reflects that the self-styled inferiors expect their superiors to be extended versions of what they regard as their own better qualities, while the self-styled superiors interpret the inferiors as possessing deficient versions of their own defining qualities. However, those two sets of qualities may not coincide.

One homely example is the comic friction that occasionally characterized the relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr Spock in the original version of Star Trek. Kirk was Spock’s superior in rank but Spock was Kirk’s superior in intellect. In theological terms, we might think of ‘rank’ as referring to an earthly metric of excellence and ‘intellect’ to a more heavenly metric.

But there are also historical precedents of the incommensurability of secular and sacred values. Perhaps most obviously are the controversies surrounding the qualities sought of a Pope in medieval and early modern Christendom – a long period of European history when the default position was that the Pope should be able to both lead armies and minister to souls. The long term decline in secular papal power reflects at least in part the Church’s unreliability in finding individuals capable of resolving increasingly divergent secular and sacred demands. Still more provocatively, Christian theologians have asked whether God -- other than in his incarnation as the historical Jesus-- can express ‘compassion’ to humans, given that ‘compassion’ implies a common level of lived experience between those expressing and receiving compassion.

The Testimony of Science Fiction

When philosophers complain about utilitarianism, they observe that it requires superhuman powers of mind along at least two dimensions. Since ‘utility’ is about the consequences of actions for well-being, one needs to be able to track everything everyone has or might have done. At the same time, one also needs to know the value of those consequences in order to calculate just how much is gained or lost by changing what people do. While much of social science aspires to address just these matters, its success to date has been chequered – and some bodies of thought would even discourage the aspiration altogether.

Nevertheless, much science fiction literature takes seriously just this aspiration. It often appears in plots revolving around time travel, which turn on whether ‘changing the past’ would have better or worse effects on what would follow, including whatever ‘present’ anchors the plot. One template is Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story, ‘Adjustment Team’, which was adapted into a successful 2011 Hollywood film, The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon. However, the most psychologically ambitious attempt to date may be the brilliant US television series, The 4400, which ran for four seasons until it was cut down by a screenwriters’ strike in 2007.

The 4400’s plot centred on people from the future trying to save the Earth from impending doom in their own day by intervening in our world to divert the course of history. The task is given an extra human dimension, as the people making the intervention – 4400 in number – aren’t native to the future. They were originally plucked from near our own time, then transported to the future and given ‘superhuman’ powers (i.e. powers beyond those naturally had by today’s humans), after which they are inserted back into our times.

The plots of such science fiction narratives are leavened by the fallible character of the judgements of those launching, enacting and receiving the interventions. In The 4400, a futuristic version of the US Department of Homeland Security – who are cast as villains – think that the visitors from the future are alien invaders. The series’ protagonists are employees of this department caught in the middle trying to decide whether to believe their bosses or the ‘aliens’ whom they encounter in various ways, often in their personal lives.

But of course, fallibilities in utilitarian judgement don’t require quite such elaborate narrative scaffolding. It is always possible to dispute not only what constitutes a beneficial intervention but also, and more fundamentally, what benefit is supposed to result from the intervention. In short, is there truly a ‘benefit of hindsight’ that comes from living in the future that necessarily makes our successors our moral superiors? It would be easy to imagine that Pontius Pilate in Purgatory might become like the future denizens of The 4400 whose task is to undo bad decisions on which his own fate depends. Indeed, a superhero might be generated from Pilate’s case, somewhat in the Batman mould -- namely, someone struggling just as much with why they do as what they do. Call that superhero Trolley Man.

The Theological Payoff of Trolley Man

Trolley Man – and indeed this entire argument – may look like a science fictional concoction of utilitarian ethics and Christian theology, the result of which is an unholy brew. However, before Jeremy Bentham had turned the utilitarian slogan, ‘The greatest good for the greatest number’, into a rallying cry for secular legislative reform in the early 19th century, it was invoked in the liberal natural theologies of Joseph Priestley and William Paley to capture God’s intelligent design.

In hindsight, the utilitarian motto can be seen as an arithmetic version an argument promoted by Leibniz (and much ridiculed by Voltaire in Candide) that ours must be ‘the best possible world’ because that is the only world that God could or would create. The trick then – following both Leibniz and the utilitarian natural theologians -- is to reverse engineer the decisions that God made in order to return the world to its original divine state, that is, prior to Adam’s Fall. Original Sin makes this trick our trick, given that Adam’s early exercise of free will in Paradise resulted in the disordering of God’s plan, as subsequently reflected in the various cognitive and moral liabilities associated with being human.

Today’s leading science-religion scholar, Peter Harrison, has nailed this point by focussing on the centrality of Original Sin to the modern world-view. The bottom line is that humans even after the Fall remain capable of so much yet are also woefully inadequate. The question then is how to bridge the gap. The Protestant Reformation opened the door to the maximum exploitation of science and technology to transform the world in the direction of Paradise, all the while conceding that even such systematic attempts at betterment cannot guarantee human salvation.

While this mentality served over time to challenge if not undermine the legitimacy of many traditional institutions, including the Church, it stopped short of turning science and technology into a new religion, notwithstanding the best efforts of Auguste Comte’s Positivist movement. In theological contexts, the Augustinian doctrine of Grace has played a key role in underscoring that God has the final say: One cannot simply bootstrap one’s way to Heaven and expect automatic admission.

In secular epistemology, the same sensibility is enshrined in the strong ‘realist’ distinction between beliefs that are justified and beliefs that are true: The former approaches knowledge from the standpoint of the imperfect knower and the latter from that of the perfectly known. The great rationalist hope throughout the modern era – which became exclusively secular only in the 20th century – has been that the more we learn about the causal order, the more our moral judgements will improve, which is to say, the closer we shall come to judging matters as God would. And yet one could claim all this and give God the final word on the adequacy of our efforts. Karl Popper’s falsifiability principle in science is perhaps the secular resting place of this sensibility.

Notwithstanding the views of atheists today, the Reformation’s call for people to encounter the Word of God for themselves served to scale up humanity’s existential ambitions in the face of our fallen state.  Of course, many Christians in the modern era have regarded such ambitions as blasphemous, or at least very likely to result in a worsening of the human condition, both in secular and sacred terms.  The ‘Fundamentalist’ revival in Christianity in the aftermath of the First World War, which continues to this day, was born of just this concern.

It may seem strange that ours could be ‘the best of all possible worlds’ yet require God to make trade-offs between various virtues, each of which could be extended indefinitely. In secular contexts, this is what economists would mean by ‘optimization’ -- and it was exactly what led Voltaire to deride Leibniz as an ‘optimist’. But to say that ours is ‘the best possible world’ is not to say that everything in our world is the best of its own kind. Otherwise, why should death or imperfection exist at all?  So perhaps these liabilities exist either to serve as a vehicle to some greater good or as itself an indicator of how the world needs to be improved. Or so Leibniz and his theological followers thought.

Here we need to imagine that these virtues exist as infinite possibilities only in God’s mind, which is itself infinite – or, after the mathematician who founded set theory, Georg Cantor, the ‘most’ infinite. However, Creation demonstrates to both God and his creatures that he can simulate a world that combines all the virtues in a finite package. In short, Creation is proof of God’s self-materializability: God is not just a figment of his own imagination but he can self-alienate in a way that isn’t self-debasing by creating a world whose overall value wouldn’t be achievable if each virtue was just pursued indefinitely. (Chaos would result in that case.) Thus, the prospect that we might live in a simulation is something that religious believers should in principle welcome but in any case expect.

All this still leaves open the fate of Pontius Pilate. We started by assuming that Pilate made a mistake of world-historic proportions when he condemned Jesus to death. However, as Pilate in Purgatory explores the alternative histories that would result in a better world, he may come to discover that each of those alternatives would have resulted in a worse world because they would have also prevented the Resurrection of Jesus, which is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Does that then mean that Pilate made the right decision after all, even though he failed to grasp the import of what he had done? The trial of Trolley Man continues.

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. From 2011-14, he published three books with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Humanity 2.0’. His next book, due out in Autumn 2017 from Anthem Press, is on ‘post-truth’.


A couple of thoughts to share;  It was mentioned that this may be the “best of possible worlds”.  I want to dig into that thought a little more.  What if that was taken as a second to first grounding assumption?  In my thoughts Nihilism may be the first assumption to take because it may be a notion that Meaning is Self-Determined.  Nihilism implies that Nothing has meaning, but does this not too imply that Nihilism has no meaning (a self-contradiction)?  In the end, could this mean that Nihilism is related to the math concept of zero?

Where does zero lie in the number line?  Is it prior to one, or is it just floating “freely”?  Logically we put it before one, but what is zero itself?  Is it a “null set”?  You know this prior data set has been analyzed to “hell” (and/or completed), and therefore a new set of instances should be generated?  Zero also stands for singularities where we can’t know what’s happening.  The notion of Singularity connected in my mind with the “Technological Singularity”.

What is the end game of that?  Deification?  An “Omega Point”?  Whoa, but if we take the implication that this may be the best of possible worlds.  What does that give us?  A notion that we may be deified already?  Is that the “third assumption” to make?

Now if someone goes around claiming to be a deity, how is one supposed to take that?  Socially we’ve been conditioned to reject said ideas (You’re standing too tall), and/or demand “Proof”.  Is not the notion that you are living in your own mental model enough?  That Steve Fuller could never not be Steve Fuller?  You may feel inauthentic in moments, which is fine, but how are you different than a classification of “God” (a symbol used to classify an Object).  We defined the Object (The Greeks decided that eras ago…God is made in our own image).

So what are we really talking about now?  That one mental model (conception of Reality) should be accepted over another?  Barabbas or Jesus?  Ever think there may have been an impulse to “let” Barabbas go because he may have stood for the “Old ways”?  You know;

“For him Jesus just seemed like a classier version of Barabbas rather than his seeing Barabbas a debased version of Jesus. “

Aren’t we eventually attracted to the “novel”?  An idea that seems new on the surface, but in reality is actually really old?  Just spun creatively in a different way?  Think about what it means to be debased….old, devalued, worn out…maybe he was the “repentant devil”, and Jesus was the “new devil”.  (devil in this context meaning went against a “utilitarian notion” of for the Greater Good!) What did Jesus ultimately do at that time?  Did he not go against the present “Greater Good”, for his own good?  What temporal resolution is needed to decide?  We can’t judge out of context.

Just some thoughts.

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