27 July 2005

Foot's Trolley

Of all thought experiments, the one which sparks most instant connection and passionate debate is Foot's Trolley. Named after philosopher Philippa Foot, it goes something like this...

You are standing by a railway track on a steep slope. Just down hill from you is a Y junction, and the lever controlling the points is right at your feet. Looking uphill, you see that a trolley, heavily loaded with concrete slabs, has become uncoupled and is accelerating towards you. Looking downhill, you see that when it reaches the points they will direct to the left. Beyond the points, on the leftward track, too far away to hear your shouts of warning, a maintenance crew of six is working. When the trolley reaches them they are bound to be killed. The only action you can take in the time available to you is to throw the lever and change the points so that the trolley is directed to the right instead. Looking down the rightward branch line you see a single kneeling figure, inspecting the track, his back towards you and the trolley.

The moral dilemma boils down to this. Do you do nothing, on the basis that 'what will be will be', and accept that the six are killed by a terrible accident? Or do you throw the lever, deliberately taking one life to save six?

This thought experiment is usually used as a dramatised simplification of some more hazy and less lethal situation. Whether to withdraw expensive one-to-one help with reading and spend the money on whole class measures in a primary school, for example. Whether a sum of money should be spent easing the pain of one terminal cancer patient or on simple operations to save the sight of ten. On an underground train last Friday in London, however, it became much more literal. That incident also set me evaluating afresh my conversation with Jim Putnam about supporting troops, and relates to Jim's more recent post about profiling - or, at least, to the issues behind it.

On that train, antiterrorist squad police officers had to decide in a split second whether to kill a man they believed might be a suicide bomber, or hesitate and risk the lives of a whole carriageful of passengers.

My students have many initial views on Foot's Trolley, and a number of final positions, but the majority decide that, whatever their moral qualms about it, they would in the end throw the lever. That was also the conclusion to which one of those police officers came on Friday: the potential bomber was shot seven times in the head, but turned out to be neither a suicide bomber nor in any way connected to the explosions on London's transport system.

There are many countries in which this would raise neither eyebrows nor questions, but Britain is not one of them. Passengers on the train, despite the air of nervousness following a second (albeit abortive) set of attempted transport bombings the day before, were horrified at the police action. The rest of the country felt the same.

Having lived in some of those countries where such a thing would have passed largely unremarked, I am very glad to be in one which finds it shocking. At the same time, I cannot in all honesty condemn the police action at the instant when it happened: in that split second, given their belief that they were dealing with a likely suicide bomber, they had no choice. But ... but ... about the assumptions which led up to that belief and that split second I do have my doubts.

The chain of events seems to go something like this. A block of flats containing many inhabitants was under surveillance, presumably as a result of intelligence received, in connection with the events of 7th and/or 21st July. The putative bomber, Jean Charles de Menezes, emerged from that block of flats. For some reason, officers became suspicious of him and tailed him for some distance (five kilometres, according to one account) through London until he entered Stockwell tube station. At some point, he became aware that he was being followed. The police called on him to stop; he ran, instead. As they followed him into the train, he was knocked to the floor and shot.

Much was made, at one point, of the fact that he failed to stop when told to do so; but at least one passenger on the train has spoken of only becoming aware later that his pursuers, dressed in jeans and trainers, were police and not gangland or terrorist killers. He may well have made the same mistake. If I find myself followed by several hard looking young men I, too, might well run for the shelter of the station and train. In any case, it was probably too late: Foot's Trolley was in motion and the only choice was what to do about it. At what point did the trolley start to move?

It is hard to avoid the thought, and it has been suggested, that some component in the reasons for tailing Mr Menezes might have been his colouring: though Brazilian, dark hair and complexion may have been sufficient to " profile" him as "Muslim".

And that long tail through city streets, especially as it approached what must to the followers have seemed the likely target of a tube station. He was apparently not carrying a bag, nor wearing anything more bulky than a denim jeans jacket. There must surely have been less hazardous opportunities for intervention that the enclosed space of a crowded train carriage.

I would vigorously argue against any suggestion that the officers concerned should be criticised for their action in that split second within the carriage. But I really would like to hear serious analysis of the assumptions, thinking and background which led to armed plain clothes police and an innocent person who simply happened to live in a large block of flats ending up at that carriage and that split second.

The action in response to arrival of Ms Foot's Trolley I support; but I will need persuading that I should support all the actions and other factors which set it in motion.


Jim Putnam said...

There are further thoughts, including a strange dream, at my site.


Mac said...

Eight words at the end of a pargraph in the middle of Felix's thoughts raise questions in my mind. They are, "...he was knocked to the floor and shot."

As I recall, the man who was shot had been trailed for a number of miles by the police. My questions might be: 1. How long was he on the floor before being shot? 2. Did the shooter ask him any questions? 3. Did anyone elsein the shooter's hearing? 4. Was the shooter among those who trailed the man who was shot?

I'll admit to not having "all the facts", but it seems to me that if the shsooter was responding properly as required by the training he had received he should not be criticized but the system that produced the training and the training should.

That, of course, leaves the questions raised by the fact that the shooter presumeably had the ability to refuse the training with full knowledge from another era that being a "conscientious objector" has its costs.