Saturday, May 30, 2020

China and the Trolley Problem

Apparently, thought experiments are commonly used by philosophers to teach ethical principles. James Wilson outlines the issues in an article on Aeon. I will however take issue with the basic premise, namely that we use these experiments to discover higher ethical principles. I will argue that these experiments are more about executive decision making, especially those situations where an executive is facing two options, neither of which is good. That is, when he needs to choose between bad and worse. Any idiot can choose between good and bad. It takes true leadership to choose between bad and worse.

In the executive situation, there is no time to decide on some overriding general principle. One needs to decide and one is damned either way.

Wilson offers the most famous thought experiment, the trolley problem:

Most famous (or infamous) among these are ‘trolley problems’ – thought experiments about the permissibility of causing the death of a smaller number of people to save a larger number from a runaway trolley (or train). 

The situation is thus: a runaway trolley is rambling down the track. There is no conductor and no way to stop it before it plows into five men working on the track, killing them all. The only option is to switch the trolley to another track. And yet, one man is working on the other track and if the trolley switches tracks, that man will surely die. So, the issue is, saving five people at the cost of murdering one. Doing nothing is not an option, since that will consign the five workers to doom. And, the problem grants equal value to the six human subjects. If, for example, the one person on the alternate track is the leader of your war effort or if he is about to discover a cure for coronavirus, would that change the way you decide? Or better, if the one person were your father or your son, how would that change your decision making.

To be clear, in distinction to the thought experiment, it is rarely the case that we know to a certitude what will happen if we do nothing.

In any event, that is the trolley problem. It is not quite as bizarre or as uncommon as it appears. Let’s say that a law firm is having trouble staying solvent. Should it fire a few lawyers in order to save the jobs of everyone else. One might say that someone is going to get hurt. Should it be five first year associates or one partner? If it's a choice between one associate and one partner, the solution becomes trivial. As it happens today, many companies are facing just such decisions. Many New York law firms have cancelled contracts with summer associates and even with entering associates.

Or else, take another situation, one that involves political leadership. Let’s imagine that a group of protesters have gathered in the central square of Beijing. The year is 1989. They are demanding democratic elections and liberal political reforms. They camp out in the central square for weeks, refusing to budge on their demands. Now, we, with our superior Western wisdom sympathize with their cause. We see Woodstock. And we see liberal democracy coming to China.

As it happens, the leaders of the Middle Kingdom do not see what we see. They see a situation that they saw a quarter century before, when bands of student radicals amassed in Tienanmen Square to inaugurate the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Given that China’s leaders in 1989 were mostly victims of the Cultural Revolution, one might attribute a certain degree of sensitivity to them. Perhaps even over-sensitivity.

Did they have any reason to think as they thought? Well, first, a teenaged student named Wuer Kaixi went on national television in his pajamas and berated the Premier of China, one Li Peng to his face. To humiliate a political leader publicly must have reminded some of members of the Politburo of what had happened during the Mao years. Second, the student demonstrators had provoked some considerable support around the nation. Strikes were breaking out. The economy was grinding to a halt. (Note the difference between that time and this year’s Hong Kong protests, which have elicited no public support on the mainland). Third, the army was in mutiny. A simple detail, often lost in the hubbub, but the People’s Liberation Army forces stationed around Beijing had announced that they would not obey orders to crack down on the demonstrators. One suspects that the police did not have the power to intervene-- situation that we are seeing play out on America’s streets today.

Now, we all agree that the best approach would have been to allow the protest movement to peter out on its own. And yet, if the movement was causing major disruptions across the nation, that may have seemed too dangerous a risk.

And besides, as Henry Kissinger pointed out at the time, China’s leaders were losing some serious face at the time. We think that losing face is all about keeping up appearances. Since I wrote a book in which I tried to dispel this misapprehension, I will point out that Kissinger was suggesting that if you cannot control the central square of your capital city, you look like you are not in charge. If China’s leaders were not in control, then the risk was that student radicals would seize control and announce another Cultural Revolution. And that that would lead to civil war.

So, China’s leaders did not merely want the protests to end. They were afraid that if they did not show themselves to be in charge, China would fall into anarchy. And they knew from the country’s history that internecine warfare would cause millions of deaths. As it happened the Cultural Revolution caused over a million deaths and destroyed countless more lives. It broke what remained of the Chinese economy and produced an extreme poverty rate that was well over 80%. 

And let us also understand that the Politburo debated the question for weeks. The students had the support of the Communist Party General Secretary and former premier, Zhao Ziyang. As it happened, Zhao himself walked into Tiananmen Square at a dramatic moment and announced to the student demonstrators that they had lost the argument.

Of course, the man who was called the Supreme Leader of China at the time, one Deng Xiaoping, only had one official title-- Chairman of the Military Commission. Deng’s opinion prevailed because he was respected, not because he possessed the authority of Mao Zedong. As you know, Deng abhorred the idolatry that surrounded Mao. He himself was targeted by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. He was named the No. 2 capitalist roader for his efforts to replace Mao’s communism with a free enterprise system. The No. 1 capitalist roader, Liu Shaoqi was murdered by the Red Guards in 1969. Deng survived it because he was a favorite of the People’s Liberation Army. For the record, his son was tortured by the Red Guards and tossed out of a third story window. The young man ended up a parapligic. 

So, we can see that the leadership of China was faced with a trolley problem in 1989. It believed that it could either exert its authority violently by murdering a certain number of student demonstrators or could watch the country disintegrate. In the latter case, the case where it did nothing, a new civil war might well erupt and millions might die.

In any event, we know what happened. We know that the George H. W. Bush administration dealt with the fallout diplomatically. We also know that a young New York Times reporter, by name of Nicholas Kristof confidently predicted that the Chinese regime would soon collapse. By his jejune reasoning, oppression always provoked a counterreaction, an act of rebellion that would overthrow the powers that be. And we also know that one Gordon Chang wrote a book ten years after Tiananmen where he predicted the imminent collapse of the Chinese regime. 

Kristof works for the New York Times so no one expects him to be right. As for Chang, the reward for being wrong for two decades is to attain the status of expert and to appear on major television talk shows. Don't say Americans are not charitable. And don't say that they have any intellectual standards.

So, as I said, the trolley problem is more practical than theoretical. It refers to situations where an executive needs to choose between bad and worse, and especially at a time where, in distinction to the trolley problem, the outcome of inaction is in doubt. 


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Brilliant piece, Stuart. In this era of perfection and armchair quarterbacking, your viewpoint is much needed. There are consequences to our actions in imperfect situations. I embrace the Theodore Roosevelt view — that the latitude should be given to the man in the arena. Hence, my (sometimes) nasty rebukes to Ares Olympus, who habitats a theoretical universe of nonsense.

“Doing nothing is not an option, since that will consign the five workers to doom. And, the problem grants equal value to the six human subjects.”

Actually, doing nothing is an option. Leftists and Democrats select it every day, and wail and moan about the results. The media covers their emotional outbursts, because great emotion makes for great TV. Facts are secondary. They will not fit into a 34-second segment. Cue the next U.S. big city riot footage.

Executive situations are all we have, and making no choice is a choice. Doing nothing has consequences. The distinction between “bad and worse” is real, and has largely been absent in the calculations of Democrat governors like Gretchen Whitmer and Andrew Cuomo. They recklessly endangered nursing home patients, condemning them to death in facilities ill-prepared to receive them (and a target-rich environment for SARS-CoV-2). Meanwhile, the rest of us suffer in senseless lockdown, the forgotten masses with no voice. Economic devastation and poverty lie ahead.


UbuMaccabee said...

Great article, Stuart. Your reasoning is sound. Very informative

David Foster said...

True, decisions need to be made, and often they need to be made quickly. "The failure to make a decision changes the course of future events just as much as does tha making of a decision."

BUT, this doesn't automatically imply that the Chinese regime was or is justified in its actions. What is the evidence that more tolerance for the Tienanmen Square protestors would have led to a resurgence of the Red Guards, rather than being a step toward a more-free China?

George III could have made precisely the same "trolley problem" argument, had trolleys existed in those days.