The Trolley Problem

I’ve been thinking more about the railway track ethical dilemma presented in the RadioLab podcast on morality. Although I was familiar with the exercise, further research (Wikipedia) reveals this to be the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment in ethics first proposed by Philippa Foot in 1967.

The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem

In brief (and my own words), the problem can be posed like this:

Suppose you are standing beside a rail line that is under repairs. On one track there are five men working, and as you look the other way you can see an unmanned trolley on the line, heading straight for the men. If you do nothing, five men will be killed. But there is a lever which would redirect the trolley to a side track. On this track, there is one man working. Do you pull the lever, killing one man but saving five? Or do you do nothing?

And with a further twist…

Suppose now the situation is the same, but you are standing above on a railway bridge. On the track there are five men working, and as you look the other way you can see an unmanned trolley on the line, heading straight for the men. If you are able to push something heavy onto the trolley you will be able to stop it. Next to you on the bridge is a fat man. Do you push the fat man onto the trolley, killing him, but saving five? Or do you do nothing?

A quick poll in my house resulted in the following:

  • Two of us would pull the lever (you save five lives!) but one would do nothing (rather not act than kill someone)
  • One of us would push the fat man (you save five lives!) but two of us would do nothing (how could I kill someone?)

Interesting to note that pushing the fat man required some justification. And also interesting to note our different responses and compare how they reflected the way we are in the world.

[Day 20: Reflection]


RadioLab on Morality

Through the Charter for Compassion website, I found a link to a RadioLab podcast on Morality (Season 2 Episode 3).


RadioLab explores responses to the “railway track” ethical dilemma

In exploring responses to ethical dilemmas, the episode looks at whether our sense of right and wrong comes from deeply ingrained instincts within the brain, or develops over time. It touches on issues of shame and guilt and wonders how these experiences shape our response to empathy.

There is so much in this hour that links back to the other things I’ve been researching that it’s taken me days to write nothing. Instead I offer this as an update and a bookmark for me to return to in exploring brain science, parenting, shame and ethical dilemmas further.

[Days 14-19: Listening to this, Researching more]

(Image Credit: National Library of Ireland on The CommonsThis photo was taken on January 21, 1959 in Windy Arbour, Dublin, DUB, IE.)

Hope through Agency

Following on from teaching foresight last week, I have been turning over not just scenario thinking, but also the idea of hope in my mind.

Futurist Rowena Morrow has written a post on Hope and what it means (What the world needs now is…HOPE). She draws on the work of Prof CR Synder to stress the contributions of pathways, goals and agency. I’ve been thinking about agency (the ability to take action) in line with the part of compassion that stresses the need to first feel compassion and love for ourselves. “Love thy neighbour as thyself” as emphasised in one of the chapters of Karen Armstrong’s book (Twelve Steps to Compassion).

To proceed compassionately, I must first back my capacity for kindness. To proceed with hope I must first back my capacity to act.

Self as a starting place.

[Day 11, 12, 13: Research]

Scenario Thinking

I have just come out of teaching the first two intensive days of a Foresight and Social Change course as part of a Graduate Certificate with the University of Adelaide. Teaching this course is a challenge and a revelation; it requires me to be fully aware of my own biases and perspectives. Feedback from students is that the course also changes the way they perceive the world. (And the way they are in the world – several have reported relationship break-ups! No pressure.)

So given my head has been in this foresight space, I have also been reflecting how the idea of compassion fits into an effective futures practice.

This article crossed my social media stream as I was writing this post. Artists Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman use the GPS meta data in Twitter posts to track the location of tweets. They then revisit those locations and take photographs that evoke the emotional content of the original tweet, including by Geolocation and hashtag eg #HowtoKeepaRelationshipWithMe. The photographs are a visual effort to see the world from that different perspective, both locational, and emotional.

welcome home

@kristinalford: @nicholastavery welcome home*

Part of the Foresight and Social Change course examines scenario thinking – how to put yourself into worlds created by different drivers of change. How do you then go about creating a business, a life when things change? At first it’s hard to make sense of the world, then it’s hard not to overemphasise the negatives – the things that are worse. But with practice, a good scenario thinker can transplant themselves into any created world and imagine what it is like to live there. Without judgement.

These photographs bu Larson and Shindelman provide a window on empathy – a way for us to perceive the world through someone else’s brief perspective. Can we move ourselves outside our own perspective, and into worlds inhabited by others, so that we truly see their perspectives without judgement, yet with understanding?

[Day 8, 9, 10: Reflection, Sense-making]

* my last Twitter update, photographed in same location later.

Radical Genorosity

What does it mean to be human?

“I believe it means practicing a radical generosity  and empathy, especially when it’s a struggle”.

– Emily Rapp, “Someone to Hold Me“,, 12th July 2012.

My mind is a jumble tonight. Yesterday I travelled, safely to my destination, but tense around the edges. No space to think. Except both yesterday and today, with the news of a friend-of-friends death, I’ve been thinking about eulogies and grief. And more specifically, how might I adequately and wholly express grief at the loss of friend or family in a way that didn’t just reflect my loss, but honoured the grief and need of those around me. Partly a reflection on taking that call, and partly wondering about solace.

“I pulled at the skin of my chest as if my heart and palm were magnets and I could force the one out with the other. I wanted somebody – anybody – to hold me, break me, annihilate me as if this might prove that I still existed…”

Emily Rapp’s essay on “Someone to hold me” makes it clear what it’s like, and what might be needed to help someone in pain. Touch, warmth, proof of existence  Acknowledgement. May I be brave enough when someone (anyone) needs to be held.

[Day 6,7: Reflection]

The Charter for Compassion

In exploring the first chapter of Karen Armstong’s book, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”, her advice is to register with The Charter for Compassion. The Charter is written in full in more than 30 languages, or you can view it here:


You can add your name to the Charter to amplify the call for a more compassionate world, and also to receive updates about the Charter’s progress in the world. I didn’t at the time, wanting to read more about the process, to think for myself, and to reflect on the way I instinctually responded to the words. My reaction to “morality and religion”, “ancient principles”, “luminous, dynamic” wasn’t necessarily positive and I’d not given much thought to formal religion since rejecting it as part of my identity in secondary school. And then it was forgotten. But I’ve been reading and re-reading this Charter or several hours now and there’s nothing I can’t wish for.

Is it too late? Signed.

[Day 5: Action]

Steps to Compassion

“Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and lies at the heart of all religious and ethical systems.” [Charter for Compassion website]

Armstrong, K "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life"

As a bonus of attending TEDActive in 2011, I was enrolled in the TED Book Club. One of the first books I received (from memory) was Karen Armstrong’s “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life“. I’ve started reading it before, started and stopped at the history of the formulation of the Golden Rule*, page 9 of the Preface.  It depresses me to think I hadn’t even made it to Step 1 – Learn About Compassion.

Armstrong was the recipient of the TED Prize in 2008, and this books explains the creation of The Charter for Compassion and how to turn it into personal action. Developing the Charter included seeking contributions from people across the world, from perspectives both religious and secular, in order to develop a charter to restore compassionate thinking and action.

I have started reading it again, and it’s helping to articulate my questions: is compassion innate or constructed, how do different religions inform and shape views of compassion and how might I use her writing as a blueprint for my own actions.

[Day 4: Researching the foundations]

*Golden Rule: Treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Or as listed within the scriptures of many religions.

On talking that call

“We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion.”

– Quinn Norton, My Aaron Swartz, whom I loved, Quinn Says, 12th January 2013.

Read Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig on the suicide of Aaron Swatrz. This bit from Doctorow’s obituary will be my reflection for today:

I don’t know for sure whether Aaron understood that any of us, any of his friends, would have taken a call from him at any hour of the day or night. I don’t know if he understood that wherever he was, there were people who cared about him, who admired him, who would get on a plane or a bus or on a video-call and talk to him.

– Cory Doctorow, RIP Aaron Swartz, Boing Boing, 12th January 2013.

I’d take that call from anyone who needed me the first time, and the second. And the third. To keep taking that call, understanding how that might affect me and put pressure on others around me, well that becomes a question of compassion. My thoughts are with everyone who has taken, made or missed that call.

Ten minutes of nothing

Lynne Malcolm: In relation to the research centre you talk about how you might introduce interventions to increase compassion, to allow people to be more compassionate. How do you do that in a scientific way?

James Doty: Well the preliminary science shows a couple of things. One is that with even an intervention which is a compassion meditation practice as short as two weeks, it can have a significant effect on the levels of stress hormones and also on your immune system.

ABC Radio National, All in the Mind: The Science of Compassion, Sunday 9th December 2012.

A desk in a noisy room, repetitive conversations, untidy rooms, deadlines, the click-click-click of social media, waiting for approvals, underlying worry about people I love. I know these things contribute to stress, and I know that when stressed I find the shortening pause between an action and my (often frustrated) reaction signals a lack of compassion.

Can meditation aid compassion? The quote above from the interview I listened to yesterday, as well as this clear and visual TED talk by Andy Puddicombe  makes it clear that meditation can reduce stresses and help us to observe more clearly our reactions before we act.

Puddicombe’s talk was featured by TED this morning, accompanied by a blog post also describing recent the scientific support for meditation benefits.  I’ve always struggled to set up an effective mediation practice, first taking a course in Transcendental Meditation in Year 11, only to set it as one of my New Year’s Resolutions again and again and have it evaporate by February. But 10 minutes of doing nothing each day? Perhaps that’s achievable?

[Day 2: Practice]

The Science of Compassion

Do you believe in the innate goodness of people?

I’m rusty, spiky and often pessimistic, but this interview with James Doty on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind opens the heart.

“Compassion is looking someone in the eye and saying we are the same.”

Getting to compassion though, well that can be harder. As founder of the Centre for Compassion and Alturism Research and Education at Stanford University, James Doty draws on his background in neurosurgery, meditative practices, entrepreneurship and philanthropy to deepen our understanding of the science of compassion and find ways to nurture our individual capacities to connect with each other.

“The act of connecting with others defines your purpose, it defines who you are and sticks with you at a deep level.”

[Day 1: Listen]