Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Trolley Problem

We know what to do when we have to choose between good and bad options. We even know what to do when we have to choose between good and better. But, what happens, to our minds, to our moral sensibilities, to the future disposition of our souls, when we are faced with a choice between two awful options.

Anyway the problem was conjured by an Oxford philosopher by name of Philippa Foote, several decades ago. Ever since philosophers and psychologists have been pondering the issue. Today, we discover that a bright young man by name of Nathan Robinson, a man who is unfortunately in thrall to an adolescent infatuation with socialism, has made a run for it. He concludes that spending your mind on such hypotheticals is a bad thing. Which means that he has missed the point.

Anyway, Robinson describes the problem thusly. It’s about making a decision when there are no good options:

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?

Do you sacrifice the one for the many or the many for the one? Obviously, it depends on who the one is. If the one is your child, the choice becomes devilishly easy. Many students, faced with this problem, chose to do nothing, and claimed that they did not want to take responsibility for any deaths at all. The five would die but their hands would be clean.

Yet, we must point out, from the onset that precious few people will even find themselves in such positions. Chief executives might have to face the trolley problem, or its equivalent, but for the rest of us, it’s an abstraction.

If memory does not fail, the problem was elicited by a specific decision made by a specific commanding officer, that being Harry Truman. When he took over the American presidency during World War II, Truman was faced with a choice: drop the atom bomb on Japanese civilian populations centers, thereby killing hundreds of thousands, or invade Japan and lose perhaps a couple of million American soldiers, not to mention an untold number of Japanese citizens.

How you see this depends on a number of other factors, which we need not outline here. For the man on whose desk the buck stopped, evading the issue by pulling a moralistic rant would not work. Many serious thinkers, however, have suggested that the A-bomb solution should be excluded because we should never, ever use nuclear weapons.

As it happens, and as it has happened in our own history, we seem to have drawn the last conclusion. But, it has not just been about nuclear weapons. We had vastly more military hardware than our opponents in our recent wars, from Vietnam to Iraq. We have chosen not to unleash it. That means, we have become squeamish and have given up on winning wars.

So, the trolley problem only applies to those who are at the top of the decision-making hierarchy. Robinson thinks that we should never think such things, lest we be less empathetic socialists:

That should be the major revelation that comes from realizing that we’re willing to dispassionately discuss which person we would murder, and how much value to place on individual human lives. To encourage someone to think about these questions is to encourage them to be a worse and more callous person, and what the trolley problem largely shows is that it’s very easy to temporarily become a psychopath if your professor says doing so will be intellectually useful.

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.

Such circumstances might be exceedingly rare, but that are not non-existent. In the fog of war, commanders face difficult and impossible decisions. Their ability to make such decisions is what caused them to be commanders:

Robinson thinks that it’s about the evils of capitalism. Bless his teenage mind:

The whole reason I am faced with an unpleasant set of choices is that I live in a highly unequal society in which children are deprived of the basic cheeses they need in order to survive. If we zero in on the question of what I should do once my choices have been set for me, we fail to ask whose actions caused me to have those particular options available to me, a.k.a. How Did I End Up On This Fucking Trolley To Begin With? If am forced against my will into a situation where people will die and I have no ability to stop it, how is my choice a “moral” choice between meaningfully different options, as opposed to a horror show I’ve just been thrust into, in which I have no meaningful agency at all? 

The commanding officer is not forced into his position against his will. He has chosen the job and the title and the responsibility. Robinson continues that no single individual should have such authority. In that he fails to understand executive leadership:

This is a pretty good demonstration of why 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.”

Here is Robinson's jejune conclusion. He means to say that he is willing to leave the tough decisions to others.

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. 

Of course, the trolley problem assesses risk. It suggests that we know for certain that the trolley, if left unmolested, will mow down the five workers, but we do not know to a certainty that it will. We estimate that an American invasion of Japan would have killed millions, but we do know for certain. It’s good to have certainties, but when you are making such decisions, you more often do not have the luxury.


DeNihilist said...

I just reviewed problem.
First off it is a ridiculous scenario.
It appears that Dick Dastardly has tied these innocents to the track - people cannot move.
It also appears that the author does not understand the mechanics of a physical train switch - it can only be in 1 of 2 positions. Wrong, many derailments have occurred due to switches not being completely thrown.
Sorry, I deal in reality.
Since this is not a true description of the situation, the problem itself is mute.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Lighten up-- it's a thought experiment. That's why I introduced the atom bomb decision!!!

Anonymous said...

I know the answer to this because I have worked both in large companies and the government. The answer is simple: you do nothing and let the 5 workers get killed. That way you cannot be blamed and may even get a raise. If you pull the switch then YOU killed the one worker and you will pay for it.

370H55V I/me/mine said...

And then there was Andrew Cuomo, COVID, and 15,000 seniors sent to nursing homes . . .

Freddo said...

The proper response for a socialist is to nationalize the trolley company so this problem can never occur again. They will have extensive rules for when and where you can tie people to the tracks, and anyone caught near the switch will be shot as a wrecker.

In ye olde days when people would still watch linear programming on television you could have a segment where a socialist politician was asked whether healthcare or education should be prioritized in the budget, and the answer would invariably be that the magic money tree would provide for both.

David Foster said...

When Captain Sullenberger lost all engines shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia, he had two options: land on the river, or try to return to the airport. As we all know, he chose the first option. That option meant some people would likely be killed or seriously's remarkable that it didn't play out that way...while the return-to-LGA option involved possible outcomes of a completely safe landing or a catastrophic crash into a densely populated area. (Simulation studies in the aftermath of the event have suggested that a safe return to the airport would have been possible, but obviously Sullenberger didn't have time to conduct a detailed analysis...wind changes were possible..and pilots know that the outcomes of return-to-airport maneuvers have a very bad reputation.

Some tribal peoples choose to abandon elderly people to their deaths, believing that supporting and assisting them will compromise the survival of the entire tribe.

During the Dunkirk withdrawal, the following message was sent to the Brigadier commanding the regiment holding Calais:

"Every hour you continue to exist is of the greatest help to the B.E.F. Government has therefore decided you must continue to fight. Have greatest possible admiration for your splendid stand. Evacuation will not (repeat not) take place, and craft required for this purpose are to return to Dover. Verity and Windsor to cover Commander Minesweeping and his retirement."

Moral dilemmas and tradeoffs similar to the Trolley Problem do exist.

Anonymous said...

We had these life or death decisions recently, in civilian life! ie who gets the scarce medical resources in the pandemic? "Not you, whitey!!"

SCOTTtheBADGER said...

Pulling the switch is the only possible option. One death far preferable to five. A harsh decision, but some decisions are harsh.

The lesson to be learned from this, is that teenagers, no matter how old they are, and I know many teenagers in their fifties, or older, should never be in a position of making decisions that effect others.

" Cheeses "?