magine that (for some reason involving cultural tradition, family pressure, or a shotgun) you suddenly have to get married. Fortunately, there are two candidates. One is charming and a lion in bed but an idiot about money. The other has a reliable income and fantastic financial sense but is, on the other fronts, kind of meh. Which would you choose?
Sound like six of one, half-dozen of the other? Many would say so. But that can change when a third person is added to the mix. Suppose candidate number three has a meager income and isn’t as financially astute as choice number two. For many people, what was once a hard choice becomes easy: They’ll pick the better moneybags, forgetting about the candidate with sex appeal. On the other hand, if the third wheel is a schlumpier version of attractive number one, then it’s the sexier choice that wins in a landslide. This is known as the “decoy effect”—whoever gets an inferior competitor becomes more highly valued.
The decoy effect is just one example of people being swayed by what mainstream economists have traditionally considered irrelevant noise. After all, their community has, for a century or so, taught that the value you place on a thing arises from its intrinsic properties combined with your needs and desires. It is only recently that economics has reconciled with human psychology. The result is the booming field of behavioral economics, pioneered by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist at Princeton University, and his longtime research partner, the late Amos Tversky, who was at Stanford University.
Automation, in this context, is a force pushing old principles towards breaking point. If I can build a car that will automatically avoid killing a bus full of children, albeit at great risk to its driver’s life, should any driver be given the option of disabling this setting? And why stop there: in a world that we can increasingly automate beyond our reaction times and instinctual reasoning, should we trust ourselves even to conduct an assessment in the first place?
Beyond the philosophical friction, this last question suggests another reason why many people find the trolley disturbing: because its consequentialist resolution presents not only the possibility that an ethically superior action might be calculable via algorithm (not in itself a controversial claim) but also that the right algorithm can itself be an ethically superior entity to us.
Good vs. bad. Right vs. wrong. Human beings begin to learn the difference before we learn to speak—and thankfully so. We owe much of our success as a species to our capacity for moral reasoning. It’s the glue that holds human social groups together, the key to our fraught but effective ability to cooperate. We are (most believe) the lone moral agents on planet Earth—but this may not last. The day may come soon when we are forced to share this status with a new kind of being, one whose intelligen
Not only does a “utilitarian” response (“just kill the fat guy”) not actual reflect a utilitarian outlook, it may actually be driven by broad antisocial tendencies, such as lowered empathy and a reduced aversion to causing someone harm.
"Not only does a “utilitarian” response (“just kill the fat guy”) not actual reflect a utilitarian outlook, it may actually be driven by broad antisocial tendencies, such as lowered empathy and a reduced aversion to causing someone harm." ...
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