Trolley

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

If you were the driver of a tram out of control, on its way to run over a group of five people unable to move away from the tracks, and you had the chance only to deviate to a second track and kill instead only one person, would you turn to the second track?

This dilemma is known in moral philosophy as the “trolley problem”, and its many formulations have produced a whole literature of their own. The intuition underlying this problem is that, even if killing one person instead of five would produce the least pain and loss, that wouldn’t make the decision to turn to the second track much easier.

Indeed, I have the feeling that the trolley problem is an insoluble puzzle, and that there is no way for the poor tram driver to take a clearly more sensible decision. My approach, which I consider the most widely shared among adults, could be however not as popular among children.

In a short video appeared on YouTube around two years ago, the child of a professor of moral psychology was confronted with the trolley problem, and gave an original solution. He decided to move the lone person on the first track. “Cute child”, I thought at first, “he understands that there is no way out and that all six people are equally deserving to live. He thus liberated the second track to proceed peacefully with his miniature train”. Well, apparently I was wrong. He disposed the sixth miniature person on the first track just to run over everyone at once.

Now, independently of the funny interpretations of the child’s psychology you can read in the comments of the video, which has by now received more than 11 million views, it might seem that there is nothing philosophically interesting in the child’s solution. The child has not solved anything at all, he hasn’t even understood the problem – or his father has not been clear enough.

But this trivial considerations shouldn’t necessarily be the whole story. Independently of what that child thought, what he did was peculiar in another sense. Facing the trolley problem means facing a tragedy, no matter what. And the fairest way to handle an inevitable evil, as the child has shown us, could be that the evil be shared by the greatest amount of people.

A very minimal (and insufficient) conception of justice would work perfectly without any idea of the good: “just” or “fair” is the condition, which equally applies to each individual we are considering within a society, independently of how good that condition is. As much as utility would require us to sacrifice one person for the sake of the other five, this minimal conception of justice would require us to create equal conditions for all people on the tracks. Given that in the trolley problem someone must inevitably die, the tram driver should run over the five people on her way, and then go back to finish off the last one standing.

The trolley problem is not only a puzzle about utility in moral philosophy, it is also a puzzle about justice. And in just the same way a form of utility imposing the sacrifice of the few for the well being of the most can be sometimes tolerated, a form of justice imposing a shared negative condition could be sometimes tolerated, just for the sake of justice.

Isn’t this crazy? Isn’t it crazy to take seriously the “miniature train example”? What would it mean to “share a negative condition for justice’s sake”? I am not completely confident about this conclusion myself, but I think that, at least temporarily, it could be good for many people (me included) to truly grasp the extent of their privilege and the tragedy of injustice. Understanding the meaning of true justice would indeed require us to coherently follow its minimal dictates and be equal to the most disadvantaged, to the discriminated and the emarginated. To women when you are man, to blacks when you are white, to immigrants when you are a local, to the needy when you are wealthy.

This wouldn’t mean to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, for you will never know what it feels like to be something you simply are not, and which has not determined most of your life. It can be however a good exercise in self-criticism.

The trolley problem might be insoluble, and only a crazy person would apply utility and justice to that situation. But the world is not always an insoluble dilemma. Indeed, many of its dilemmas are insoluble only insofar as you defend the status quo as a standard of morality and justice. But we can do better than the status quo. We can think, at least since the time we start playing with miniature trains.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Author: letterstoishka

Blogging philosophy student. From my busy-bee mode to the daydreaming sloth mode there’s no in-between. Someone mistakes me for a wasp.

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