Are you a psychopath? Even if you were, the answer to that question would probably be “no”, so luckily, there’s a more definitive test available.
Enter the “trolley problem”. If you haven’t already heard of it, the trolley problem is a thought experiment developed by philosopher Philippa Foot that issues us with an ethical dilemma.
Here’s how the problem goes, in the words of philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson:
“Suppose you are the driver of a trolley. The trolley rounds a bend, and there come into view ahead five track workmen, who have been repairing the track. The track goes through a bit of a valley at that point, and the sides are steep, so you must stop the trolley if you are to avoid running the five men down. You step on the brakes, but alas they don't work.
“Now you suddenly see a spur of track leading off to the right. You can turn the trolley onto it, and thus save the five men on the straight track ahead. Unfortunately, there is one track workman on that spur of track. He can no more get off the track in time than the five can, so you will kill him if you turn the trolley onto him. Is it morally permissible for you to turn the trolley?”
That is to say, should you do nothing and allow the trolley to remain on the same track, letting it kill the larger group, or should you make the conscious decision to switch tracks and kill just one person, sacrificing his life to save five?
Well, if you answered the latter, we’ve got some bad news. According to a study published in the scientific journal Cognition, those who choose to kill one to save five have higher scores on measures of psychopathy, Machiavellianism and life meaningless.
But don’t get too worried about that “psychopath” label just yet. Co-author of the study, Professor Daniel Bartels from Columbia University conceded that there was an inherent flaw in the trolley problem.
“These methods fail to distinguish between people who endorse utilitarian moral choices because of underlying emotional deficits (like those captured by our measures of psychopathy and Machiavellianism) and those who endorse them out of genuine concern for the welfare of others.”
Tell us in the comments below, what would you do if you were faced with the trolley problem?