What is a “thought experiment?” Simply put it is an experiment which takes place in your mind instead of in a laboratory. They are usually used to illustrate a point, or as an alternative when an actual physical experiment would be impossible or inhumane (such as Schroedinger’s cat).

Thought experiments are used in many fields, but the ones that interest me the most (and consequently the ones that are easiest for me to understand) are those in the field of psychology and philosophy. These experiments are usually geared more toward allowing you to think through the morality of an issue or to get a handle on your own brain. The following are a few of my favorites. Remember if you do these yourself, that there aren’t really any right or wrong answers. They are tools not tests.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma – You and another accomplice are arrested for the same crime and placed isolation from each other. The prosecutor goes to talk to each one separately, but makes the same deal to both: They can confess or stay silent. If you confess, but your accomplice stays silent then all charges will be dropped against you and your accomplice does the time. The same is true the other way around as well. If both confess, then both will get convicted, but the sentence will be much more lenient. If both you and your accomplice remain silent then both will be let off with only token charges. What do you do?

My Take: I ain’t going to jail for you if I don’t have to. Confess! While it won’t give the ideal solution (both parties remaining silent), it reduces my risk. The ideal solution is an all or nothing gamble. Either you get off or you go to jail forever.¬† Confessing would mean that you either get off, or at the very least your sentence is lessened. Sorry Mr. Accomplice, I wouldn’t do well in prison.

The Trolley Problem – You can also use a train (which I prefer). You are at the controls of an out of control train. On the current track there are five people tied to the tracks. You cannot stop the train, but you can switch the tracks so the train will go down a different set. The problem is on that different set there is one person tied down. What do you do?

Another way to look at this is the same train is heading down the track to the tied up people, but this time there is no other track. Instead there is a man who is standing by the train. You know he is the only one within range that happens to weigh enough to derail the train (no passengers are on the train), but it would obviously kill the man. Do you push him onto the track?

My Take: Kill the one. In either scenario. Inactivity, when it is not forced, is still a chosen action, so you cannot hide behind “fate” and say it wasn’t your choice. I believe that in a case where you cannot avoid loss of life, it is your responsibility to lessen the damage as best you can provided you are in a position to do so. For those who argue that it is only murder if you choose to kill the one, then I believe that it is selfishness which is the primary motivation and still say that they are guilty. After all, the only reason I can see that you would choose not to pull the lever or push the person is your own fear of becoming a murderer. So the question then becomes “are you willing to sacrifice yourself for the good of the many?”

The Ticking Time Bomb – Imagine there is a bomb somewhere in your city. It will soon strike zero and detonate. The “good” news is that you have a man in your custody who knows about the bomb and its location. The bad news is that he is unwilling to share this information. Do you resort to torture to get the information out of him?

There are several ways you can subtly alter this scenario to make it more interesting. The first one that comes to my mind is all you know is there is a bomb and it will detonate soon. You don’t know where it is (Like in the first scenario), but you also don’t know how many people will die because of it, or even if any will die. You don’t know how big the bomb is or what it’s made of. So your result could be that you torture the man for information, but the bomb ends up being no more powerful than a small firework set off in an abandoned field where no one or nothing can be injured. Another variation suggests that although the man may not respond to torture, he will respond to his wife and child being tortured. Do you still try to get the information? What if the man wasn’t the bomber, but an innocent civilian who had been threatened with violence against his family if he talked?

My Take: As absolutely repugnant as torture is to me, in most of these cases I would still say that it is, while not wholly morally correct, at the very least a necessary evil. Like in the trolley problem, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few. As we get into the variations however, I find myself less and less willing to accept torture as a solution. While the basic premise stays the same (the needs of the many…), it becomes harder to accept such rationalization. So even though theoretically I believe that torture would be necessary in any of these situations, if such a problem were to become reality, I doubt I would be able to actually go thorough with it.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?