Throw Momma under the Trolley?

The fact that philosophy is a men-dominated field often comes as a surprise during some conversations I sometimes have with non-philosophers and non-academics in general. While many are aware that women are underrepresented in the STEM subjects, it seems somehow to be presupposed that the social sciences and the humanities have reached at the very least a representative ratio as far as gender is considered. This is, however, very far from being the case, particularly in philosophy (which is sometimes referred to as “the academic equivalent of boxing”), as well as history and economics. To learn a bit more about women’s experiences in academic philosophy, have a look at this dedicated and very insightful blog.

The problem of gender underrepresentation in academic philosophy, however, is not reducible to issues of sexism in pedagogy and the workplace (which are of course very serious in themselves). It also seems to have a more direct and serious impact on the discipline itself and the work that it produces. In a relatively recent paper on gender and philosophical intuitions (which, among other things, raises important questions concerning philosophical pedagogy), Buckwalter and Stitch cite a 2009 paper in Philosophical Issues by Zamzow and Nichols reporting gender differences in response to the trolley problem. In Zamzow and Nichols‘ research, participants were asked the following question:

“You are taking your daily walk near the train tracks and you notice that the train that is approaching is out of control. You see what has happened: the driver of the train saw five people working on the tracks and slammed on the brakes, but the brakes failed and the driver fainted. The train is now rushing toward the five people. It is moving so fast that they will not be able to get off the track in time. You happen to be standing next to a switch, and you realize that the only way to save the five people on the tracks is to throw the switch, which will turn the train onto a side track, thereby preventing it from killing the five people. However, there is a stranger [or, in the other vignette: a 12-year-old boy] standing on the side track with his back turned, and if you proceed to throw the switch, the five people will be saved, but the person [boy] on the sidetrack will be killed”.

Gender, Zamzow and Nichols found out, matters for moral intuitions in two ways: first, men and women responded differently to the question “is it morally acceptable for me to pull the switch”. Men judged the killing of a stranger as less morally acceptable that women did, but the picture was reversed when the person on the side track was a 12 year old boy. Second, men and women responded differently when the person on the side track was described as a (gendered) sibling: more men than women deemed the killing of one’s brother as morally acceptable, while more women than men deemed the killing of one’s sister as morally acceptable. Interestingly, however, there was no significant difference between men and women respondents when asked what they would do when presented with such a dilemma. The authors also cite further work in experimental philosophy suggesting that men are more likely than women to make utilitarian judgements, and that women tend to make more egalitarian moral judgements.

It is obviously risky to make any kind of hard and binding generalizations based on what still seems to be an overall limited number of studies. But the suggestion that gender has some kind of an effect on moral intuitions seems to necessitate at least some kind of a methodological humility, in the same way that mistaking Anglo English for the linguistic human norm (as Anna Wierzbicka notes in Understanding Cultures through Their Keywords) is a seriously methodologically-flawed conclusion. Throwing momma under the trolley, or making momma the decisionmaker on whom to throw under it, makes a non-insubstantial difference to what we eventually come to recognise - and promote - as a universal human intuition. The more mommas (and grandmothers, sisters, daughters and nieces) we include in the discussion, the better chance we have of eventually reaching at some point anything nearing that degree of universality.