Book Review: Would You Kill The Fat Man?

Book Review: Would You Kill The Fat Man?

The most recent book that the SAS Book Club discussed was David Edmonds’ 2014 Would You Kill The Fat Man? The club discussed the book as always with a view of interpreting the work as to its relevance and importance as a read for the University of Phoenix generally and particularly in relationship to the School of Advanced Studies. This work was of particular interest as it reflects the works of philosophers in the area of practical ethics as this might be seen in career relevant advanced decision making related to government, education and industry.

Edmonds, who is a senior researcher at Oxford University's Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, undertakes a somewhat in depth exploration of Trolleyology which he coins as a euphemistic term to refer to the Trolley Problem in practical ethics which was originally formulated by British philosopher Philippa Foot.  Professor Foot who began teaching at Oxford University in 1947, presented the problem as an ethical dilemma thought experiment early in her career and set the stage for repeated presentations in both original and revised forms by dozens of others for over six decades since.

In essence, the trolley based ethical dilemma is presented in scenario form where someone standing on a bridge above, observes a trolley running out of control toward four men tied to the tracks below. He also sees a fellow of sufficient weight standing on the bridge next to him that if pushed from the bridge onto the tracks, would serve to stop the trolley and save the four individuals in harm’s way. The original reference to the fat man had no intended reference other than to present the individual as sufficient in size to stop the trolley that would otherwise crush the four slimmer fellows.  This however has become more of an issue in moral perceptions over the decades to follow.

David Edmonds uses various representations of the Trolley Problem interspersed among realistic scenarios of historical significance to include Winston Churchill’s decision to use intentional misinformation to confuse Nazi bombers during World War II and redirect bombings to the outskirts of London and also President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the Atomic Bombs on Japan. The analyses of these practical dilemmas in ethical decision making rely heavily upon the ideas of utilitarian philosophy pertaining to the greater good. Edmonds’ coverage of utilitarianism as a distinct philosophy seems very well done. Even the historical and biographical digressions that characterize individuals such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell among others contribute to the engaging nature of the book.

Less engaging however are David Edmonds’ attempt to transition from more traditional foundations of British and European philosophy into the realm of neurocognitive and psychological research that has some relevance to the dilemmas of practical ethics and moral reasoning. What he presents seems preliminary at best.  Noting some psychology experiments conducted that roughly related to the Trolley Problem, he then concentrates somewhat on the neurocognitive theories of Harvard psychologist and neuroscientist Joshua Greene. However, Edmonds conspicuously excludes any reference to the paradigm of moral and ethical development that also has a rich research history at Harvard. That thread of history dates back to the contributions of Lawrence Kohlberg (1981, 1982) who holds some distinction for his widely acknowledged theory of moral development.

Philosophers and their thought experiments typically have referred to the generic mind when pursuing issues in ethical reasoning and decisions. This is however highly subject to challenge from a developmental perspective.  Would the actor at 18 years old observing the Trolley, four people in danger and the utility of the fat man choose to push him?  Would that same actor at 58 years of age make the same decision?  From a developmental and lifespan psychology perspective, the dynamic changes based on growth, aging and life circumstances all become critical variables relevant to the choices made.

All that being said, David Edmonds has yet authored an engaging book that is stimulating to critical thought. His exploration of the issues from the practical ethics perspective provides a strong stimulus to consider ethical dilemmas that go from thought experiments to actual scenarios one may encounter in the course of life and career. It requires one to go a bit deeper into the reality and foundation of what we might consider and decide under various circumstances. Such critical thought has strong relevance to advanced study and Edmonds presents it in a somewhat engaging and delightful manner.

Authored by: Robert Olding, Ph.D.

Dean of Assessment

School of Advanced Studies 


Edmonds, David (2014). Would you kill the fat man?: The trolley problem and what your answer tells us about right and wrong. The Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Kohlberg, Lawrence (1981). Essays on Moral Development, Vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-064760-4.

Kohlberg, L. (1982), "Moral development," in J.M. Broughton & D.J. Freeman-Moir (Eds.), The Cognitive Developmental Psychology of James Mark Baldwin: Current Theory and Research in Genetic Epistemology, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

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