The Trolley Problem (aka the Trolley Dilemma) is sometimes used thought experiment used by psychologists and philosophers to gauge a person’s moral compass. The though experiment goes something like this:
Suppose there is a runaway train car (a trolley) that is rolling down the tracks towards five people tied to the tracks, or are lying on the tracks and are otherwise unable to move. You are off in the distance observing this and happen to see a lever next to you that if pulled will switch the runaway train car from its current course onto another set of tracks. However, on the diverted track there is single person tied to the tracks and will be killed if you pull the lever. Question is: Do you pull the lever to save five people and kill one or take no action and let five people die?
Keep in mind this is the Trolley Problem in its simplest iteration. There are several variations of this thought experiment which involve intentionally pushing a fat man onto the tracks to save five people (the Fat Man version) or intentionally pushing the man (a “fat villain”) who tied up the potential victims onto the tracks to avert the deaths of the innocent. Let’s not concern ourselves with these versions or ask questions about the characters of all the potential victims. For the sake of realism, however, we are going to alter the details of the thought experiment to a more likely scenario than initially presented. We’re going to do this because the Trolley Problem such as it is described above doesn’t present a realistic situation one would find themselves in and be forced to make a moral judgement. What I’d like to do is introduce a modern equivalent to the Trolley Problem, changing the problem to something more akin to what philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson had in mind with her “brilliant surgeon” version of the Trolley Problem.
Here’s my version: Suppose you are a politician and if you don’t vote on a particular bill, five random people will lose their health care coverage and die from pre-existing conditions. If you do vote for this particular bill, the five people will keep their health care coverage but another single random person will lose their coverage and die from their pre-existing condition. In summary, if you don’t vote – if you take no action regarding the bill – five people will die. If you do vote for the bill – take action on the bill – one person will die and five will be saved. Do you vote for the bill or not?
Philosophically, what you as the politician is likely to do is based upon whether you are a utilitarian or a deontologist. That is, if you seek to do the greatest good, as a utilitarian you’re going to vote for the bill. If, on the other hand you think that committing certain actions like intentional harming someone are wrong, then you’re not going to vote for the bill. Of course, the obvious flaw with the deontologist’s position is that not voting for the bill – an inaction – is just as bad as intentional harm if it is your intention to abstain from the vote. In other words, an inaction is just as bad as an action if one intends towards the inaction. (The major flaw in Deontology is that intentions matter.) There is a choice to be made – vote or don’t vote – and once it is made, there is intention behind the given choice; this fact cannot be escaped. The deontologist likes to think that by not intending to ‘intentionally’ cause harm, they are absolved from whatever harm does happen. Obviously, this is madness as not voting for the bill – intentionally – causes harm and makes the deontologist’s actions morally impermissible.
This deconstruction of the deontologist’s position philosophically compels you to vote for the bill, thus taking the utilitarian route (if there’s no false dilemma here, which there may well be). Without knowledge of any of the random people involved, without knowing whether saving the five will result in a better or worse world, you should vote for the bill on the assumption that the death of five people is likely to wreak more sorrow and havoc than the death of one person. All things being equal among the random people, you are compelled to vote for the bill on purely philosophical grounds if you want to be considered a morally just person (such as morality is construed in the Western Industrialized world). However, what people are likely to do is much different in reality.
In reality, most people take the deontologist’s route and think they are avoiding taking an action that intentionally harms a single person. This outcome was confirmed by a 2007 online experiment conducted by psychologists Fiery Cushman and Liane Young and biologist Marc Hauser. They concluded that by taking a positive action (doing something) that resulted in a positively negative consequence evoked emotions that clouded ‘better’ judgement. But why should this be the case? Why would ‘taking action’ result in feelings that assume the outcome will be worse than taking no action at all? Why does an apparently personal investment in an outcome change what a person will decide to do?
We may want an evolutionary psychologist to weigh in here or we may hypothesize that people generally ‘don’t want to get their hands dirty’ for fear of negative consequences, meaning, precisely, being responsible for one’s actions. As those of us familiar with the workings of Western culture know, we tend to forgive inaction that leads to harm as we work from the assumption that such consequences weren’t malicious in nature. Only, if one knows the consequences – that five people will die through the inaction of not voting – it is difficult to reason why this outcome isn’t just as malicious as voting. Again, the deontologist works from the premise that an action can be wrong and an inaction not wrong, but I’ve already argued this is demonstrably false as inaction is in fact an action because the decision itself is based on intention. The deontologist intends not to intentionally kill someone not realizing the initial intention intentionally kills five people. No matter what angle you view such moral dilemmas from, given only two choices, the deontological reasoning falters.
None of this takes into account other reason why you might vote or not vote. Perhaps you view situations like this and feel the need to do something, and therefore decide to vote. Or perhaps you’re a misanthrope and are indifferent to the people dying. There may also be the way such dilemmas are presented (for example, in the way they are written or are viewed in a virtual world) that may influence decision-making. Regardless of the one of the two choices made – if that’s all that are given – it still tells us something about the moral compass of the person making the choice. In my example, a deontologist has no firm philosophical ground to stand on. They are, in other words, irrational.
And this is why the Trolley Problem, formulated in 1967, is still relevant today. It would be wise to know when a populous is too irrational, if for no other reason than to prompt a re-evaluation of, say, educational programs. Of course, there is the other side of the coin in which people in powerful positions rely on an irrational populous, so such moral tests would be wise for them to administer as well so they might be aware of when citizenry might be becoming too smart for them to fool. Thought experiments, long considered the realm of lowly philosophers, are beneficial to everyone. And when they’re not, they still make for good conversations when you’re high.