A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
Most people resist the idea of pushing the fat man over the bridge. If, however, the problem is reworked, so that the five people can be saved (at the cost of one life) merely by flipping switch, most people accept the necessity of sacrificing one life to save five. The question experimental psychologists are eager to answer is:
...why do countless studies reveal that when confronted with the otherwise equivalent version where you have to physically knock someone off the footbridge to save five others, the vast majority ... -- a staggering 90 percent -- believe it wrong to do so? Logically, it's the same trade-off in numbers saved and killed. The answer, however, has nothing to do with logic. It's much simpler: the two situations feel different. Take a moment to think of how it would feel to wrap your hands around the flesh of another living, breathing human as he teeters perilously at the edge of a high bridge, to see the fear in that person's eyes as he struggles fruitlessly to escape your grip. Assuming you don't have psychopathic tendencies and aren't smiling right now, that pit you feel in your gut when thinking about shoving the guy, even to save five others, results from intuitive systems ... screaming: "Don't do it!" For most of us, this impulse usually wins. [Desteno & Valdesolo, Out of Character, 46-47]
The focus here is not on how the Objectivist Ethics would try to solve (or dismiss as irrelevant) the trolley problem, but how Rand's blank slate view of human nature can be squared with the "staggering 90%" who believe it wrong to push a man onto the track to save 5 others, even though most think it right to sacrifice one to save five if it can be done by merely flipping a switch. Rand believe that man's "emotional mechanism" is blank at birth. So where do people get the content or "premise" that causes them to flinch from pushing the a human being to his death but not flinch when pulling a switch to achieve the same result? Where in Kant (or any moral philosopher) is there a premise that would enable a person to make such a distinction and, even more to the point, feel it? And what about the psychopath who smiles at the thought of pushing the man (but perhaps regrets killing one to save five)? How do you explain the psychopath's absence of emotion? What premise did he fail to imbibe?
When confronted by such experiments, Rand's view of emotions appears hopelessly inadequate. Yet it gets even worse as we the experiment deepens. It turns out that if you show clips from SNL videos immediately before presenting subjects with the Trolley problem, three times as many individuals choose to push the fat man onto the tracks than did before. How on earth are the results of that experiment supposed to be explained on the basis of Rand's theory of emotions?
Here's how Desteno and Valdesolo explain their experimental results:
Decades of research have shown that when we're experiencing an emotion, it can't help coloring all our actions and decisions -- even ones that have nothing to do with what we're feeling in the first place.... Simply put, we all unwittingly use our emotional states as information, or cues, to guide our decisions about what's likely to happen or what we should do. If we're feeling sad, we can't help feeling that depressing things must be just around the corner.
In the present case, those who watched the SNL skit were understandably feeling more buoyant and cheerful.... As a result, the visceral negative feelings that otherwise would have been triggered by the thought of pushing another to his death were momentarily blocked. With these gut feelings held at bay, it became easier to rationally weigh the consequences of the two scenarios and conclude, quite logically, that it is morally acceptable to sacrifice one life to save five others. [ibid, 45-46]
In short, it is very difficult to square the experimental evidence concerning the relationship of emotions to moral assessments with Rand's ex cathedra pronouncements declaring emotions to be caused by subconscious premises.