When considering the major issues of the day that concern the living, not the dead — i.e. Gaza and asylum seekers — one’s thoughts turn naturally to post-Wittgensteinian moral philosophy. In that respect, it’s a pity that book review pages in Australia have long since abandoned the regular examination of serious work, since it has deprived readers of the chance to encounter the work of the philosopher Bernard Williams, whose collected essays and reviews were recently published.
Wittily titled Essays and Reviews, the collection offers a comprehensive treatment of one of the most vexed questions of moral philosophy of our time: the division between what you do and what occurs by your inaction. This is often made concrete by a game called the “switching problem”, in which you are posed the following dilemma — an out-of-control train full of passengers is hurtling down the tracks towards a switch point. If it stays on the given route, it will crash into a station, killing everyone. But you can switch it onto a track where someone — for reasons unknown — has been tied to the rails. Do you switch the train? If there’s a hundred people on the train and a crash is otherwise certain, the answer seems pretty clear. But what if a crash is only 50% likely?