What's the Trolley Problem got to do with it? Ethics as Method

by Annette Markham
July 2018

Ethics. One of the oldest concepts in humanity, it’s the study of values, morality, and choice. It’s a philosophical term, but in everyday use, we general use the word Ethical to mean “doing the right thing.” This certainly means different things to different people, in different contexts. In scientific research community, ethics is generally accompanied by a second term, dilemma. Should we test this drug on humans, knowing that it could cure cancer but kill this one individual? In recent years, the “Trolley Problem” has become the most popular example (especially in self-driving car discussions for some reason) to demonstrate that it’s impossible to make decisions that don’t harm someone, somewhere.

The Trolley Problem. Ian Bogost reminds us it’s a relatively old scenario presented by Philippa Foot in 1967. Wildly popular now, it has its own meme category. Ethics Oversimplification 101.  I hate this scenario, for some of the same reasons Josh Cowls mentions in his thoughtful 2017 essay. The trolley problem is as overly dramatic as all my favorite action movies, including the loss of brakes, the binary choice with tragic consequences either way, and reliance on a single individual’s decision. In the films I watch, the hero (generally a handsome white male) save the day yet again. In my classes, students struggle over the cable car example and leave the room depressed or debating fiercely about which terrible outcome is less terrible.

I prefer a model of ethics that is more subtle, embedded in the micro decisions we make on a daily basis. Through every small action, we produce as well as reflect an ethic. Paying attention to these micro practices can help us make better –that is, strong and context sensitive– ethical choices. This image is not the opposite of the trolley problem. Rather, it turns our attention, as social researchers or technology designers, toward different parts of our processes of making knowledge and things.

A practice based notion of ethics, in social research and design contexts, pays attention to method. Method, in this sense, is nothing more or less than a systematized understanding of the everyday means of moving, making, deciding, acting, sorting, choosing, and other basic elements of the inquiry process. This idea of ethic as method is less well known than philosophically oriented notions. In the early 2000s, when I started getting pulled into ethics discussions in the internet research communities, I spent some time reading up on the matter. While I was intellectually interested in philosophical treatment of values and morality, I was never much for abstractions, so I found myself constantly going back to the most basic dictionary definitions for these terms. When asked to give a keynote on research ethics for a conference and PhD summer school in Trondheim, Norway, I focused on deconstructing the term so it could be understood in terms of everyday practices of inquiry. Because for me, they are one and the same. Ethics are methods, and methods are ethics. Both involve making choices that have consequences.

The special issue of Social Media + Society, edited with Andrew Herman and Katrin Tiidenberg, focuses on ethics as methods. Asked to pay attention to how ethics are enacted through method, or how methods are inherent carriers of particular ethics, contributors offer compelling and nuanced ways of re-envisioning the concept of ethics for the 21st Century. Read our introduction here, and the rest of the articles on the Social Media + Society website.