The Humanitarian with the Trolley

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(I’m also sending this to former subscribers who have let their subscription lapsed. If you want to see some of these new, exclusive items–well, you know what to do: www.TracinskiLetter.com/subscriptions.)

Today’s note is an observation I came up with while working on a longer article for RealClearFuture on the Trolley Problem. This is an old philosophical conundrum about a runaway streetcar, where you have to decide whether to pull a switch that will divert the trolley onto Track B–where it will kill a single person–thereby diverting it from Track A, where it would kill a whole crowd full of school kids who all look exactly like Oliver Twist from that old movie. You get the idea.

The Trolley Problem is all the rage now when people write about self-driving cars. The idea is that we’re going to have to program them to decide whether to save pedestrians by ramming the car into a concrete barrier and killing the occupant.

The whole discussion is mind-bogglingly stupid, and my RCF article will be devoted to explaining why that is, as patiently and thoroughly as I can. Quick preview: only an academic philosopher would devise a theoretical thought experiment based on a mode of transportation that has been in actual use for 150 years.

While working on this larger piece, I was thinking about why the Trolley Problem and its variants are so popular among contemporary philosophers. When I was studying philosophy in college, that particular variation, the one involving the runaway trolley, wasn’t in vogue yet (or it had been and gone decades earlier). Instead, there was a popular version where a dictator was holding hostages and he orders you to shoot five of the hostages, with the threat that if you don’t do it, he will shoot 25 hostages. So do you pull the trigger and be responsible for the deaths of five people? Or do you not pull the trigger and allow five times as many to die?

A friend of mine took a course that began with nothing but a list of dilemmas like this. He called it “philosophy by bizarre and extreme example.”

Ayn Rand’s memorable rejoinder was in “The Ethics of Emergencies,” where she dismissed such “lifeboat” scenarios as irrelevant to morality. Moral principles are formed from and intended for the 99.9% of existence that happens when you are not in a life-and-death emergency. So the question is: why are philosophers so fascinated with those extremely rare scenarios?

The most superficial reason, though I think it is actually a factor, is that such scenarios make ethics and morality seem brain-bustingly intractable. They make the esoteric ideas and reasoning of professional philosophers seems like the equivalent of quantum physics in its complexity. By contrast, things like figuring out whether you should cheat on your wife, or whether you should take a job that you don’t enjoy because it pays more money–the ordinary kind of moral decisions people actually make in most of their lives–require very broad principles like “honesty” that just anybody could understand. Which makes the task of the philosopher seem positively mundane, like a glorified version of “Dear Abby.”

The cost of this is that in making philosophy seem more complex and difficult, these scenarios also make ethics seem irrelevant to all of our ordinary decisions. It’s just there for lifeboats and runaway trolleys, should such an emergency arise in the course of your everyday life.

Yet there’s a deeper and much creepier attraction. Notice that all of these emergency situations have one thing in common: they require sacrifice. Somebody has to die if others are going to live. They all carry the implicit premise that moral problems require sacrifice, and that the main purpose of morality is to tell us who should be sacrificed to whom.

Deal with the ordinary problems of actual human life, and that’s not at all obvious. Questions about what job you should take or whether you should cheat on your wife–all of them have potential solutions in which everybody walks away unscathed. No blood on the pavement, no missing limbs. There’s no really compelling reason why anybody has to be sacrificed for the sake of anybody else.

So the purpose of starting with the trollies and lifeboats is to instill in us the idea that morality is synonymous with altruism, that it is synonymous with a morality of sacrifice.

Logically and historically, this is not true. There have been egoistic theories of ethics and those in which men’s rational interests are considered to be harmonious and sacrifice is regarded as unnecessary. And it’s not just theories of ethics. The science of economics, with concepts like division of labor, comparative advantage, and the invisible hand, was founded on that premise.

It is the job of philosophers to separate out these hidden assumptions, to distinguish the idea of morality from the idea of sacrifice and to help us to think about them as separate issues. But I don’t think it will be news to anyone on this list that today’s philosophers aren’t doing their jobs. In their loyalty to the ethical theory of altruism, they seek to equate it with morality itself, and the lifeboat and trolley scenarios help them do this and to propagate that assumption to the next generation of philosophy students.

But wait, it gets worse. These bizarre scenarios actually have a more specific purpose. They were meant to isolate (and also to confuse) the issue of sins of commission versus sins of omission. The whole point of the Trolley Problem is that you are at the switch, and in the action of pulling that switch, you then become responsible for killing the poor bastard on Track B. But if you don’t pull the switch, you will then be indirectly responsible, by omission, for the horrible deaths of all those school kids on Track A.

The purpose of the dilemma, pretty obviously, is to convince you that you have to pull the switch. Its purpose is to convince you that it’s moral to deliberately kill somebody for the greater good of others.

Which is monstrous when you think about it. Under the guise of an exercise in moral clarity, the Trolley Problem is trying to convince us that otherwise decent men should be prepared to kill innocent people for the greater good.

You know who else got ordinary people to murder for the greater good? And no, you can’t invoke Godwin’s Law, because I’m talking about the actual philosophy of Nazi Germany. Or take any example of murder and tyranny from history. The Trolley Problem is also a philosophical rationalization for the motto of the Communists, that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, by which they meant skulls. Or it’s an argument in favor of that great exemplar of enlightened ethics, Maximilian Robespierre, who sent people to the scaffold by the hundreds in the name of the greater good of mankind.

Isabel Paterson called him “the humanitarian with the guillotine.” Now we have the humanitarian with the trolley.

No, most of the people now discussing the Trolley Problem as if it might be serious have not worked out its monstrous implications. But that’s just a cautionary tale about how easily the unwary can be taken in if they haven’t learned to engage in critical thinking about big ideas. As for the philosophers who are pushing this–well, it’s their job to know, isn’t it? The persistence of the Trolley Problem and its ilk is proof they’re not doing it.–RWT

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