Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Nathan Robinson's Trolley Problem

On occasion I opine about the thought of one Nathan Robinson. This young man edits a magazine called Current Affairs and consistently shows himself to be intelligent, thoughtful and a talented writer, to boot. Thus, he passes the bar that separates people I happily read and people I happily ignore.

This said, unfortunately young Robinson still suffers from an adolescent infatuation with socialism. One hopes that someone as intelligent as he is will eventually grow out of it, but that does not seem likely to happen tomorrow. Being youthful he also suffers from a deficient sense of reality, but that is merely a function of inexperience, something that he will probably not overcome any time soon, either.

Anyway, in a recent article, co-authored by Brianna Rennix, Robinson tackles what moral psychologists call the Trolley Problem. They do not want you to be thinking about it, because merely thinking about it makes you a horrible person. OMG-- they do not say so, but they suggest that it compromises your capacity for empathy. As though that is a bad thing.

I trust that you know the Trolley Problem. If you don’t here is the Robinson-Rennix rendition:

For the lucky few who have thus far managed to avoid exposure to the Trolley Problem, here it is: a runaway trolley is hurtling down the track. In the trolley’s path are five workers, who will inevitably be smushed to a gory paste if it continues along its present course. But you, you have the power to change things: you happen to be standing by a switch. If you give the switch a yank, the trolley will veer onto a different track. On this track, there is only one worker. Do you pull the switch and doom the unsuspecting proletarian, or do you refrain from acting and allow five others to die?

The authors tend to dismiss the problem, because you are unlikely ever to encounter such a problem:

If all of this sounds incredibly stupid, with no obvious relationship to any moral problem that an ordinary human is likely to encounter, that’s because it is. And yet it is an “iconic philosophical thought experiment,” one which “has occupied the attention of brilliant minds, from academic ethicists to moral psychologists to engineers.”

In the midst of their drawn-out exposition, the authors suggest that the problem is the trolley’s safety precautions. You see, the solution is: more bureaucrats and more regulations. You can see why such people are attracted to socialism.

We should spend far more time inquiring into the trolley company’s lackadaisical attitude to safety precautions, and whether it’s morally justified to cut down on voluntary brake inspections in order to decrease operating costs and maximize quarterly profits. 

In the end they seem to believe that the Trolley Problem is morally repugnant, because we should not be thinking about playing God. In other words, it makes us less docile and less flaccid. Therefore it is a bad thing. Besides it’s unrealistic:

The trolley problem is repulsive, because it encourages people to think about playing God and choosing which people to kill. It is as irrelevant as the Asteroid-Orphans Dilemma, because “who would you murder in extreme situation X?” is not even a distant parallel to the issues that will likely come up in your own life. It warps human moral sensibilities, by encouraging us to think about isolated moments of individual choice rather than the context in which those choices occur. It is escapist, in that it allows us to comfortably drift into the realm of the implausible and ridiculous, so that we do not have to confront disturbing truths about our real-world moral failings. And it encourages a kind of fatalism, where everything you do will inevitably be a disaster and moral questions seem hard rather than easy. If you want to actually be a better person, you can start by never wasting a second of your life contemplating trolley problems.

Fair enough, the authors note correctly that there is not any real right or wrong answer. This apparently offends them, though one does, in life, occasionally encounter a situation where one has to choose between bad and worse.

By thinking seriously about the trolley problem, i.e. considering what the scenario being described actually involves, we can see why it’s so limited as a moral thought experiment. It’s not just that, as the additional conditions grow, there are not any obvious right answers. It’s that every single answer is horrific, and wild examples like this take us so far afield from ordinary moral choices that they’re close to nonsensical. 

But then, mirabile dictu, the authors chance on a situation that corresponds fairly well to the Trolley Problem-- war rooms. Once they do they effectively can do no better than to offer vapid platitudes.

Allow them their thought:

Perhaps the closest real-life parallels to the trolley problem are war-rooms, and areas of policy-making where “cost-benefit” calculuses are performed on lives. But in those situations, what we should often really be asking is “why does that person have that amount of power over others, and should they ever?” (answer: almost certainly not), rather than “given that X is in charge of all human life, whom should X choose to spare?” 

Wishful thinking allows them to reject the notion that, in a war or in an emergency or in a crisis, any individual person should exercise authority.

… no individual person, or small group of elites, should actually have decision-making authority in extreme situations like this: all examinations of who “deserves” to live rapidly become unsettling, as the decision-maker’s subjective judgments about the value of other people’s lives are given a false veneer of legitimacy through a dispassionate listing of supposedly-objective “criteria.”

The notion that, in time of war, no individual should exercise authority, is fatuous.

Since the authors lack the historical imagination to see what happens in the real world, allow me to enlighten them.

Consider this problem: you are the president of the United States leading the nation in a World War. You have been told by all relevant military authorities that you can only end the war in the Pacific by invading Japan. Doing so will cost the lives of millions of people. But then, you also learn that a group of scientists in New Mexico have invented a weapon to end all weapons, an atomic bomb, that is very likely, if used on civilian population centers in Japan, to end the war instantly.

What do you do?

As opposed to the Trolley Problem, the real world situation has a number of variables. You do not know to a certainty the cost of invading Japan. You do not know that the bomb will work. You do not know that Japan will surrender. You are effectively dealing with risk assessment and probabilities. This means that your decision is harder, of course.

And yet, you are the leader of a nation at war. And you will need to choose one or the other path. How much good will it do if you call young Mr. Robinson and he tells you that you have no right to make the decision.

Strictly speaking, the individual making the decision has been placed there by the people of the nation. Making it appear that he has gained arbitrary powers is a bit distorted. 

So, choosing between less damage and more damage, in a situation where damage is inevitable… feels close enough to the Trolley Problem. It tells us that situations arise in political life, at least, where there are no clear answers and where either option involves damage.

The authors sum this up, even though they imagine that it never happens in real life:

The first limitation of the trolley problem is that it places us in a situation of forced decision-making, where all the future outcomes of your choices are completely certain, and all of them are bad. (The trolley problem, by the way, also encourages people to be confident that they can predict outcomes, setting aside the uncertainty that characterizes all actual tough decision-making.) Unless you are a very particular kind of strict utilitarian, who truly believes that killing one innocent person is “good” if five other people get to live, the trolley problem is not a “moral quandary” that asks you to choose between one option that is, say, good but difficult, and another option that is, say, bad but easy, thus testing the strength of your willingness to do the right thing in adverse circumstances. Rather, you are in a situation where any choice you make will result in people’s deaths: any decision-making pathways that would allow you to reduce the likelihood of people being hurt (can you shout to the workers to move? can you throw yourself down onto the track to slow the trolley’s progress?) have been presumptively closed off. 

They arey correct to say that in real life we do not have the same degree of certainty. The Trolley Problem is defined in terms of a high degree of certainty. In real life, we are dealing with possibilities. Yet, all projections of the consequences of future actions involve calculated risk. This does not make the problem absurd, and it does not make us unfeeling-- tsk, tsk-- it provides a conceptual framework within which we can work.

Consider this concept, introduced by none other than Winston Churchill. As you know, it is a counterfactual. At some point Churchill said that only one man could have aborted World War I before it got completely out of control. I believe that he said the same about World War II. In the case of the first World War, that person would have been Woodrow Wilson. In the case of the second, it would have been Franklin Roosevelt.

Churchill was, as I recall, too diplomatic to say that American presidents, by failing to get involved while the crises were unfolding, contributed immeasurably to the horrors that ensued.

As history suggests, they were facing a choice between a preemptive engagement or a protracted exercise in mass destruction. Nothing assures us, to an absolute certainty, that the first course would have caused the war trolley to deviate and cause limited damage. 

And yet, given the catastrophic consequence of the wars, and given the possibility that a president, by engaging militarily might have forestalled it, would you take the risk? Or would you have been, as Wilson was, too proud to fight. Isn't that, as Theodore Roosevelt said at the time, a sign of abject cowardice.

True, it would have been a calculated risk. It might have been the case that the parties involved in the wars might have come to their sense before they unleashed mass destruction on the planet. And yet, shouldn’t we ask ourselves how to avoid wars, not necessarily by whining about peace or by becoming more empathetic, but by being actively engaged, even when that engagement involves some military action.

Obviously, the people who make such decisions need a cold hand and a cold heart. They cannot be whining in their cocoa about the fact that people will get hurt and that they do not want to have anyone’s blood on their hands. Of course, sitting it out might bespeak wisdom. It might signal cowardice. Or it might bespeak a moral collapse, the kind that the young and inexperienced experience when faced with a difficult, no-win decision. In the case of the world wars, sitting it out was anything but wise.

Robinson and Rennix offer their sense of what they would do. They would panic. That's what you get when you are wallowing in moral sentiments.

It’s very obvious what would happen if any of us ever encountered a “trolley problem” in real life. We would panic, do something rashly, and then watch in horror as one or more persons died a gruesome death before our eyes. We would probably end up with PTSD. Whatever we had ended up doing in the moment, we would probably feel guilty about for the rest of our lives: even if we had somehow miraculously managed to comply with a consistent set of consequentialist ethics, this would bring us little comfort. 

Evidently, they are not ready to face difficult strategic questions. What was it that Hamlet said about conscience? They are riding an ethics of feeling, and one thing you do not need under the circumstances described in the Trolley Problem is-- empathy.


whitney said...

"It’s very obvious what would happen if any of us ever encountered a “trolley problem” in real life. We would panic,"

This is an absolutely tragic summation. He knows he could not and has never known anyone that would not panic in a crisis. It is beyond his ken to think that such a person exists. He has lived his life with empathetic men and been taught disdain stoic men because there was no need for stoic man. Those times are ending quickly

trigger warning said...

Robinson's view is peurile in the extreme. His vacuous logorrhea would be merely amusing if he didn't have a following in the brownfields and landfills of Journoville.

War rooms and nuclear bombings aside, the Trolley Problem, and its predecessor, the Principle of Double Effect (as explicated by Aquinas), have wide and varied applicability.

Consider this article: "Medical Ethics and the Trolley Problem" (Andrade, 2019). These moral dilemmas pop up daily in clinical staff meetings.

In addition, disaster response and mitigation operations often require consideration of similar circumstances.

And finally, these moral dilemmas are hot topics within the field of artificial intelligence, because the rule that is coded will be the rule that is executed. The code supervising the flight dynamics of airliners, and the problem of self-driving cars are but two examples.

Giordano Bruno said...

We just encountered such a situation. It was called Covid. And when it landed in March, nobody was quite prepared. We had decisions to make, and very little reliable information to work with. People had to make those decisions. How bad is it, really? How many will it kill? Does it kill young and healthy people, too? Is this a bio-weapon, etc, etc. All over the world, tough calls to make. Then time, and information, and more decisions. Then more data and time and new decisions.

It reached an impasse: shut down society and risk a complete economic collapse or open up the society and renew economic activity while mitigating the risk. Either way, people are going to die. Sweden said this openly. But how many? And from what groups? And what are the very real consequences of mass unemployment and zero economic activity? The fallout from the economic collapse could lead to a much, much more dangerous series of consequences.

My take is we did it right and preserved our Federal system of government and narrowly avoided a point of economic no return--one that will be felt differently in different parts of the country depending on their approach to the virus. No orangeman and his animal instincts and we would still be on a federally mandated lockdown. Here in Dixie, we've been free almost the whole time.

There is no excuse for having an infatuation with socialism in 2020. In 1920, yes, but in 2020, you have to wade through the thousands of books that document the carnage. No one who thinks clearly can be a socialist at this point. Just bought hardbacks of Martin Malia and Richard Pipes for $4 each. No excuses not to know.

"If all of this sounds incredibly stupid, with no obvious relationship to any moral problem that an ordinary human is likely to encounter, that’s because it is. And yet it is an “iconic philosophical thought experiment,” one which “has occupied the attention of brilliant minds, from academic ethicists to moral psychologists to engineers.”

That reminds me of why I left graduate school to pursue a life of the mind by reading books and travelling to ancient historical sites. I had to get away from what the university had become; there is no more hostile place to wisdom than the modern university.

Sam L. said...

As I see it, the apparent solution would be to crank the turning rail half-way to the other line and have the trolley come off the tracks. many passengers are on the trolley?

David Foster said...

Andre Malraux was listening to a Soviet bureaucrat going on about how Communism would lead to perfect happiness for all: Malraux raised his hand and asked "What about the child run over by a streetcar?"

"Under a planned Socialist transportation system," the bureaucrat replied, "There will be no accidents."

Robinson's analysis is so jejune that it's hard to imagine that he has written much that's worth reading.

David Foster said...

Sam L's comment reminds of the movie 'Runaway Train', which I just realized could be considered as an example of the Trolley Problem.

Two cons have broken out of a maximum-security prison and hopped a freight train. They realize with horror that the engineer has had a heart attack...the cons have no way to control the train, not only because they don't know anything about train-runnning, but because the way the engine is coupled to the first car makes it inaccessible to them.

There turns out to also be another person aboard the train, a young woman who is a maintenance worker.

The train is picking up speed, and it may well derail just about the point at which there is a chemical factory.

The railroad is operated by Centralized Traffic Control, so that the Train Dispatcher can remotely control all mainline switches.

You are the responsible executive. If you do nothing, the train will likely derail and wipe out the chemical plant, with catastrophic results. But there is available a switch...which leads to an abandoned and snow-covered line. Turn the train onto that line at its current rate of speed, and the two cons..and the innocent woman...will die.

What is your order to the Train Dispatcher?

Anonymous said...

As I remember, in the Medical field, it's called Triage,
...and no, you're not allowed to panic, which would cost yet more lives

ErisGuy said...

Churchill said that only one man could have aborted World War I before it got completely out of control. I believe that he said the same about World War II.

Fun dinner conversation with as strong a link to reality as "what if Xerxes had the Yamamoto."

Giordano Bruno said...

ErisGuy, does he get the Japanese sailors along with it, or does he have to operate it with passive, Persian pederasts? I'll give you the Yamamoto, staffed with Persian pederasts, in exchange for Artemisia.