The `Trolley Problem' was developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 to illustrate in abstract form the ethical dilemmas involved when making life or death decisions for other people. With some modification from its original form, it can be summarized as a situation where you see a trolley car rolling down the tracks on which a number of people are working and who are oblivious to the approaching car. You have the option of doing nothing in which case the people will surely be run over by the trolley, or throwing a switch that will direct the trolley to an adjacent track on which there are fewer people. What to do? There are several variations on this problem, the most interesting being a scenario in which you can push a fat guy in front of the trolley car which will stop the car, saving the lives of the people on the track but surely killing the fat guy.
To illustrate the many perspectives that one can take in analyzing this problem. Dr. Cathcart presents it as a trial, complete with prosecuting attorney, defense attorney and various friends of the court including a college philosophy professor, a psychologist and a bishop from the catholic church. Each presents an argument for why "Ms. Daphne Jones of Oakland, California" should or should not be found guilty of manslaughter.
The perspective I found most interesting was that of the bishop who summarizes the arguments made by St. Thomas' regarding the permissibility of killing another person. Unlike the obvious argument one would expect from the church (or any other religious institution) that we should go good and avoid evil (duh!), St. Thomas tackles the more complicated albeit realistic situation where an act has two effects, one good and one evil. This of course is precisely the situation of the Trolley Problem.
[There is one perspective that was not presented and which I think was critical. When an individual makes the decision to push the fat guy off the bridge to stop the trolley, they should be expected to face the full consequences of their actions. This includes two categories of consequences. First, being a hero for saving the lives of those persons whose lives are saved, and accepting all the accolades and thanks that come with such life saving action. But it should also include acceptance of the fact that they intentionally took the life of another person with brings with it the punishment and grief associated with such an action. This argument is not discussed in 'The Trolley Problem' and is one of many that readers may come up with upon reflection of this book. It made me think that I would have supported a guilty verdict for Ms. Jones, with a commuted, or greatly reduced sentence.]
`The Trolley Problem' is a marvelous read for many reasons. First, it illustrates the complexity of evaluating a situation that has both a positive and negative aspect, giving many of the perspectives one can take in such problems. Second, it shows how philosophical thought can be a powerful tool applied to daily problems, although the trolley problem is somewhat extreme. But it shows that a rationale way of thinking should not be confined to academics or scholarly work, and in this regard I think Cathcart's book should be required reading in high school, showing youngsters how their intuitive or gut feelings can be totally misleading compared to what to a more careful analysis can produce. (For what it's worth, I also think Jim Stockdale's Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Reprint ed.) and Martha Nussbaum's Philosophical Interventions: Reviews 1986-2011 should be required for kids, although the later is a bit heavy).
And my final comment is simply that this is a fun book to read! It's lucid, light hearted style make it enjoyable to curl up with, and being a short book (slightly more than 100 pages) it is a quick read. But while reading it may take one evening, understanding the content and reflecting on how you would vote before judging Ms. Smith will take much longer.