McGilchrist and Trolleyology

A large part of McGilchrist’s hemispheric hypothesis, beyond actually understanding the place of human brains and minds in the world, is essentially moral philosophy from the ancient Greek virtues onward. Given how we understand ourselves in the world, how should we act, etc.

At one point, he is particularly scathing without naming names, about what I generally call “Trolleyology”. Thought experiments about the ubiquitous runaway railway trolley switching tracks or not, killing and or sparing a cast of characters in increasingly complex and artificial scenarios.

Utilitarianism’s stock-in-trade are scenarios designed to force unpalatable choices in an attempt to make us aware of our “irrationality”. They are amusing, but … That people calling themselves moral philosophers can seriously debate whether … it might be right to act in this way … suggests there is something very wrong …
McGilchrist TMWT p1134/5

In pop-morality circles there is a whole industry under the Trolleyology umbrella and, like McGilchrist, I despair at a whole generation of people who might actually think that’s how morality works – a utilitarian calculation.

In defence of Michael Sandel who is a popular exponent of the trope, having seen him lecture I know he understands it’s a “toy” model in the philosophical jargon. I’ve come to see it as a thought experiment designed to demonstrate that this is precisely how morality cannot be. How important not only agency, but real-life participation must be. But that doesn’t assuage the despair.

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