Pillars of Eternity uses the Trolley Problem

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In a previous post I mentioned that I really like how Obsidian Entertainment approaches ethics in their game, Pillars of Eternity. However, they are not content to rest on an excellent virtue ethics system that tracks how your character reacts to situations. They also present you with moral dilemmas that are often quite difficult to solve, or at least make you consider which choice is the right one.

Before I give a specific example, I need to point out that this post will contain spoilers for a particular quest in the game. It is not the main quest; so you might not even find this quest. However, it is not overly difficult to find. It takes place in Defiance Bay, in Act 2. So once you have finished with that area, then you can read this post (or if you don’t mind a spoiler for one side quest).

I won’t spoil the details that get you to this point, but it turns out that an acting troupe is luring various citizens into joining them in order to essentially create a snuff fil….err, play. In other words, they literally kill these people on stage in front of an audience. The underground theater’s patron is a lord in the city. When you confront him, he points out that he cannot help himself. He has a perverse desire to see people die. He is ashamed of it, but it is just who he is. In order to keep his desires in check, he tries to select people that will not be missed, or who are not particularly good people in the first place. Moreover, he tells you, he donates a lot of money to charities in order to balance out his wrongdoing. If you destroy him, those people will no longer be helped.

It’s a classic dilemma—a version of a thought experiment called the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem presents a situation where a trolley driver looks ahead on the tracks and sees that there are five people stuck in some way to the main track. Luckily, there is an emergency side track that goes around these five people. The driver need only push a button to switch tracks. Unfortunately, there is a single person trapped on the side track. The question is: should he push the button?

Most people say that pushing the button is at least morally permissible. Some say that he should push the button and would be wrong not to do so. The calculation in either case is basically utilitarian. Killing one person is better than killing five.

Now consider another case. A world class surgeon has five patients in need of various transplants. They will die without them. The doctor has a separate patient who is perfectly healthy and has all of the organs needed by the other five patients. Assume that the doctor is so good that the surgery is (effectively) 100% likely to succeed. Should the surgeon be allowed to sacrifice the patient in order to save the other five?

Here, most people will say that the surgeon may not do this. Some people will say that the healthy patient could volunteer to die for the other five, but many people do not find even this acceptable. In any case, our intuition is that the surgeon cannot simply take the patient’s life.

Why doesn’t utilitarianism prevail here? Many answers have been suggested. Philipa Foote says that the difference between the two cases involves killing versus letting die. Killing five people in the trolley example is worse than letting five people die in the surgeon example. Judith Thompson, on the other hand, says the difference lies in rights versus utility. In the surgeon example, we would be violating the healthy patient’s rights by killing him or her. The five other people have no right to the healthy person’s organs. Of course, the single person on the train track also has the right not to be hit by a train. Unfortunately, in the trolley example, rights get violated either way, so you fall back on utility. Violating one person’s rights is better than violating five; the lesser of two evils, so to speak. However, in the surgeon case, rights can be respected, so they should be. In Thompson’s terminology, “rights trump utility.”

Whatever solution you prefer (even if it’s some other solution!), Pillars of Eternity is offering us a similar choice. We are asked to consider whether the good that the nobleman does somehow makes up for the lives that he is taking. If we are purely utilitarian, we might argue that he does so much good for the city that the loss of a few lives is outweighed by the good done. If we are deontologists (explained a bit in the second paragraph of this post), or if we simply believe that rights are inviolable, we might argue that rights should never be ignored in this way, no matter what good may come of it.

What’s interesting is that PoE gives us this option. You get to choose which approach to ethics you (or your character) prefers to take. Of course, in real life, you might just kill the guy, take all of his stuff, and donate it to the needy. Solve both problems! But that misses the point of the thought experiment. Besides, this example takes place in a fantasy world where some people literally have the power to cure the insane impulses of other people by using mind magic. If you want to break the example, just ask Obsidian why they don’t let one your characters simply fix the nobleman so we can have the best of everything!

But that would be unrealistic.

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