2017 Compliance & Ethics Institute Guest Blogs: Eugene Soltes, the Trolley Dilemma, and Rethinking the Laws Against Murder

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By Jeff Williams

Eugene Soltes killed it in more ways than one. The author of Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal brought an insightful and interdisciplinary presentation to the 2017 SCCE CEI general population. In illustrating how white-collar crime is many steps removed from the space, time, and injury to the victim, he shared the Trolley dilemma.

The first iteration of the Trolley dilemma goes like this: “You are standing by a trolley line next to a lever that switches tracks. You see a moving trolley heading towards five rail workers which will kill them if unstopped. On the switch track, there is one worker who would be killed if you switched the tracks to save the five. Do you pull the lever to switch tracks, thereby saving four lives?” Most people say yes.

The second iteration of the Trolley dilemma has a different twist: “You are on a bridge over a trolley line standing next to a large, heavy person. You see a moving trolley heading towards five rail workers which will kill them if unstopped. If you pushed the large person off the bridge, it would kill that person, stop the trolley, and save the five. Do you shove the large person off the bridge to a violent death?” Most people say no.

And so, Soltes used this to illustrate that one of the reasons Why They Do It is because they are removed from the damage done. Even though the mathematical death toll is the same in either iteration (five dead versus one dead), I might also humbly add that the reason most humans will pull the lever but not shove the obese is probably because one is definitely not murder but the other definitely is.

The professor went on to another related thought experiment, saying that if murder were legal, we still shouldn’t worry too much about our neighbor murdering us, because people don’t resolve social conflict through extreme violence. While I think that the professor’s sense of this is rooted in a lifetime of empirical and behavioral inquiry into the human condition, it did remind me of a bit by comedian Louis C.K. on this question If Murder Was Legal. The comedian had a different take on the thought experiment–there would be so much murder.

Whether you believe the professor or the comedian, it was a very insightful talk. Killed it.