WOULD YOU KILL THE FAT MAN?
Two Pager – Ajit Chaudhuri – September 2017
I for one dislike fat people!
I don’t quite know why; perhaps because they embody a lack of self-control (it’s always medication or the thyroid or genetic factors, and yet when you see a fatso you can be sure that food is nearby), perversion (the lack of self-control rarely stops at food), and inequity (in this country, no poor person is fat – and few have got that way without gouging public resources). In my days at Mayo College (for those who don’t know, I taught economics and coached football there in the mid-1980s) the fatsos were rounded up and made to do additional physicals, referred to as ‘Fatty PT’ in those wonderful times before political correctness – I used to feel bad for the pathetic so-and-sos then but wouldn’t now. And when I see one walking down the aisle of a plane, I pray that he is not heading for the empty seat next to me (and when my prayers are unanswered, I brace myself for a battle to protect my rightful space). So, if I were asked the question that forms the title of this note, you can be damn sure about my answer. The less of them, the better! But more about that later!
If you are uncomfortable at my diatribe thus far and are considering discontinuing reading, please don’t! In a case of what can only be considered divine retribution, I recently underwent a ‘360 degree medical’ and tipped the scales at a hundred plus kilos. Now I wish that I could be in denial and say that it is all muscle, or that it’s because I am tall, or even that if I am playing football twice a week at age 54 I must be doing something right, but hey – the numbers don’t lie. I am, officially, a fatso!
And therefore, I am reconsidering my views on a philosophical question that forms the subject of this note. And may I solicit your opinion as well. In scenario 1 below, would you pull the lever? And in scenario 2, would you kill the fat man? Read on!
Scenario 1: You are walking near a trolley-car track when you notice five people tied to it in a row. The next instant, you see a trolley hurtling towards them, out of control. A signal lever is within your reach; if you pull it, you can divert the runaway trolley down a side track, saving the five, but killing another person who is tied to that spur. What would you do?
Scenario 2: You are on a footbridge overlooking the track where five people are tied down and the trolley is rushing towards them. There is no spur this time, but near you on the bridge is a fat man. If you heave him over the bridge, he will fall on the track and his bulk will stop the trolley. He will die in the process. What would you do? (It is of course presumed that your own body is too svelte to stop the trolley, should you be among those considering noble self-sacrifice.)
Most people (90 percent) would pull the lever in scenario 1, and would not kill the fat man in scenario 2. The latter just seems wrong; the cold pulling of a lever versus picking up an innocent bystander just because of his size and heaving him over a bridge, kicking and screaming, to his certain death. And yet, in mathematical terms, both situations are identical – one person dies to save five.
A phenomenon that is simultaneously self-evident and inexplicable tends to be intriguing to philosophers, who came up with the term ‘trolleyology’ to cover the described scenarios, their even more fiendish variants, and the many thought experiments conducted around them. Some findings include that women are less likely to act in either scenario, that people who have just seen a comedy clip are more likely to sacrifice the fat man than people who have just seen a tedious documentary, and that if your case is coming up for parole your chances of getting it are significantly higher if the deciding judge has just had a nice lunch.
“Frivolous crap!” some of you may opine. And yet this has practical usage in today’s world, where the argument of ‘greater good’ is commonly set against ‘the pain of a few’ and ‘collateral damage’. Arguments for and against the use of torture as an instrument of policy, the building of a dam that inundates tribal villages, and the bombing of a civilian area in which some Al-Qaeda operatives may be hiding, ultimately come down to whether it is OK to kill the fat man (or not).
Trolleyology has obvious military applications, and is part of the course at elite officer training institutions such as West Point! In India, readers would recall the ‘human shield’ case of 9th April 2017, wherein an army major tied a local bystander to his jeep to ensure safe passage from stone throwers while rescuing a stranded election team in Kashmir. And I remember a case in Afghanistan where an Afghan National Army (ANA) post was overrun by the Taliban and its soldiers taken off into the mountains as prisoners. The ANA rescue unit were unable to chase in helicopters, and used what it described as the ‘Afghan way’ of going into the nearest village, picking up ten men, and telling the village shura (a grouping of village elders) that they would be returned when the soldiers came back. They did!
Given the nature of these notes, I would like to conclude by returning to the subject of my obesity (rather than taking you down the path of moral philosophy, ending with the observation that we are all fat men in a world where violations of our rights in the name of security, economic growth, and the longevity of our political masters’ ideologies is a common occurrence). I am reminded of the apocryphal story of a drunk George Bernard Shaw being accosted by a belligerent lady outside a pub.
The lady (severely): “You, Sir, are drunk!”
GBS: “And you, Madam, are ugly! And tomorrow morning, I will be sober”
A month, my dear readers, and I assure you that I will be on this side of a century.
Further reading on Trolleyology for those particularly interested:
1. “The Trolley Problem” by Thomas Cathcart
2. “Would You Kill the Fat Man” by David Edmonds