Monday, September 18, 2017

Would You Kill The Fat Man?


Two Pager – Ajit Chaudhuri – September 2017

I for one dislike fat people!

I don’t quite know why; perhaps because they embody a lack of self-control (it’s always medication or the thyroid or genetic factors, and yet when you see a fatso you can be sure that food is nearby), perversion (the lack of self-control rarely stops at food), and inequity (in this country, no poor person is fat – and few have got that way without gouging public resources). In my days at Mayo College (for those who don’t know, I taught economics and coached football there in the mid-1980s) the fatsos were rounded up and made to do additional physicals, referred to as ‘Fatty PT’ in those wonderful times before political correctness – I used to feel bad for the pathetic so-and-sos then but wouldn’t now. And when I see one walking down the aisle of a plane, I pray that he is not heading for the empty seat next to me (and when my prayers are unanswered, I brace myself for a battle to protect my rightful space). So, if I were asked the question that forms the title of this note, you can be damn sure about my answer. The less of them, the better! But more about that later!

If you are uncomfortable at my diatribe thus far and are considering discontinuing reading, please don’t! In a case of what can only be considered divine retribution, I recently underwent a ‘360 degree medical’ and tipped the scales at a hundred plus kilos. Now I wish that I could be in denial and say that it is all muscle, or that it’s because I am tall, or even that if I am playing football twice a week at age 54 I must be doing something right, but hey – the numbers don’t lie. I am, officially, a fatso!

And therefore, I am reconsidering my views on a philosophical question that forms the subject of this note. And may I solicit your opinion as well. In scenario 1 below, would you pull the lever? And in scenario 2, would you kill the fat man? Read on!

Scenario 1[2]: You are walking near a trolley-car track when you notice five people tied to it in a row. The next instant, you see a trolley hurtling towards them, out of control. A signal lever is within your reach; if you pull it, you can divert the runaway trolley down a side track, saving the five, but killing another person who is tied to that spur. What would you do?

Scenario 2[3]: You are on a footbridge overlooking the track where five people are tied down and the trolley is rushing towards them. There is no spur this time, but near you on the bridge is a fat man. If you heave him over the bridge, he will fall on the track and his bulk will stop the trolley. He will die in the process. What would you do? (It is of course presumed that your own body is too svelte to stop the trolley, should you be among those considering noble self-sacrifice.)

Most people (90 percent) would pull the lever in scenario 1, and would not kill the fat man in scenario 2. The latter just seems wrong; the cold pulling of a lever versus picking up an innocent bystander just because of his size and heaving him over a bridge, kicking and screaming, to his certain death. And yet, in mathematical terms, both situations are identical – one person dies to save five.

A phenomenon that is simultaneously self-evident and inexplicable tends to be intriguing to philosophers, who came up with the term ‘trolleyology’ to cover the described scenarios, their even more fiendish variants, and the many thought experiments conducted around them. Some findings include that women are less likely to act in either scenario, that people who have just seen a comedy clip are more likely to sacrifice the fat man than people who have just seen a tedious documentary, and that if your case is coming up for parole your chances of getting it are significantly higher if the deciding judge has just had a nice lunch.

“Frivolous crap!” some of you may opine. And yet this has practical usage in today’s world, where the argument of ‘greater good’ is commonly set against ‘the pain of a few’ and ‘collateral damage’. Arguments for and against the use of torture as an instrument of policy, the building of a dam that inundates tribal villages, and the bombing of a civilian area in which some Al-Qaeda operatives may be hiding, ultimately come down to whether it is OK to kill the fat man (or not).

Trolleyology has obvious military applications, and is part of the course at elite officer training institutions such as West Point! In India, readers would recall the ‘human shield’ case of 9th April 2017, wherein an army major tied a local bystander to his jeep to ensure safe passage from stone throwers while rescuing a stranded election team in Kashmir. And I remember a case in Afghanistan where an Afghan National Army (ANA) post was overrun by the Taliban and its soldiers taken off into the mountains as prisoners. The ANA rescue unit were unable to chase in helicopters, and used what it described as the ‘Afghan way’ of going into the nearest village, picking up ten men, and telling the village shura (a grouping of village elders) that they would be returned when the soldiers came back. They did!

Given the nature of these notes, I would like to conclude by returning to the subject of my obesity (rather than taking you down the path of moral philosophy, ending with the observation that we are all fat men in a world where violations of our rights in the name of security, economic growth, and the longevity of our political masters’ ideologies is a common occurrence). I am reminded of the apocryphal story of a drunk George Bernard Shaw being accosted by a belligerent lady outside a pub.

The lady (severely): “You, Sir, are drunk!”

GBS: “And you, Madam, are ugly! And tomorrow morning, I will be sober”

A month, my dear readers, and I assure you that I will be on this side of a century.

Further reading on Trolleyology for those particularly interested:
1.    “The Trolley Problem” by Thomas Cathcart
2.    “Would You Kill the Fat Man” by David Edmonds

[1] I borrow considerably from “Clang Went the Trolley” by Sarah Bakewell in the NYT of 22-11-2013.
[2] This was set out by the philosopher Philippa Foot as ‘Spur’ in 1967.
[3] This was set out by the philosopher Judith Thomson as ‘Fat Man’ in 1985.


Nayana Chowdhury said...

You know that your abhorrance to the fatso has a link to the school you studied in, right? Gluttony is one of the deaddly seven sins in Christianity :D And of course you assigned another sin "sloth" in your mind and that made it even more deadly.
On a serious note, we should indeed keep in mind we can all be the proverbial fat man to be thrown in front of the trolley. We often forget that so far we see others being thrown in the track.

mohanty.nilu (F081) said...

This one is really awesome Sir! Triggers a lot of thought.

I had been through this dilemma more than once. And every situation was unique in itself.But what I realise from the outcomes is that a concern for greater good may not always help us take the best decision. Sometimes we should not pull the lever and let the fatso become the scapegoat.

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Dear Ajit,

I pulled back.

Have relieved myself of 11kgs and despite a trip to the UK for 18 days have managed to keep it off!

We can do it. And I am sure you are doing it. If you need help I am happy to sermonise you with the methods I used.

The best thing to happen is that my knees – one of which has had 3 arthroscopic surgeries to repair a broken ligament – and both of which are showing signs of osteoarthritis are feeling less burden. And I feel much lighter and can actually see where I am peeing! And of course old clothes that were expensive are back to being useful.

I realise I don’t like fat either and least of all on myself.

Sachin Sachdeva

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Thanks - interesting .

Mona Dikshit

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Welcome to the centurion club! Hope you are with us only for a short time

Get well soon

Sudhir Rao

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

I must confess I have had thoughts of killing the fat man more than once in the last two decades. This was a most interesting read, especially given my own personal fat man is hurtling to this side of the century. Dare I say, nothing will ever be the same again :)

RV Jayapadma

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Quite honestly, when i first read your note it seemed totally irrelevant (bit disconnected:)) but as i read it again it started to make sense and funny as well. Infact, i quite like to read things that you send since they force me to think in ways i havent :))
I quite doubt i would have the presence of mind to do any such thing in those scenarios besides panicking and trying to get external help. And i hope to not witness or be in such situations.

Interestingly i have often thought about the concept of 'collateral damage' for the 'larger good' in the context of the army/police when caught in life and death situations; and also the larger decisions made by leaders (both great and crappy ones). And many a times have thought about it in terms of the Universe and its ways of maintaining order (God, nature and its strange ways etc).

I am never sure if there is any right or wrong answers there but it sure is risky territory because it holds the potential of using the 'Larger Good' excuse for all kinds of vested interests. And yet i know of some great people who took very tough decisions which seemed to look very 'bad' on the outside, but had the seeds of genuine goodness within. In fact it takes a lot of character (in both good and dangerous ways) to take such decisions and actions.

Vibha Chhabra

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Intriguing & thought-provoking!
Thanks for sharing.

Srikant Sastri

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Hi Ajit

Great to read another 2-pager from you. I was afraid that I had been bumped off your list, as it has been a long time. Your writing always educates me and gets me to think (and laugh, a heady and hearty combination!). All the best for your mind over matter marathon. Will we be getting "Before' and 'After' pictures too? Thin people can also have perversions, ha ha.

Dr. Nandita de Souza

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

As always, a pleasure!
As always, forwarding.
Lots of love,
Vandana Menon

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Thanx for the trolleyology. Had never heard that term, though the ethical dilemmas were not new. That this is discussed at Westpoint, i would wonder "what is the point?"

Dr. Sunil Kaul

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Ah, now I know the reason behind the cold looks you've been giving me!!!! Welcome to the club, however short-lived the membership you desire to be. And a nice one, the note this time, despite all the vulgar things you had to say about arguably the finest lot among human beings. What are friends for, if they cannot forgive a trespass or 2.


Liby Johnson

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Even though you're a certified nutter, you do write well 😁

Parveen Sikand

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

I am worried about the weight. Saying which the 2 pager was excellent.

To come back to the weight

Try this diet. I have been doing it since June and have lost 4 kgs. It's a slow but consistent way to lose weight.

Lots of love,

Brinda Crishna