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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Veggie

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Conservativism backlashes the most when a progressive practice threatens to become mainstream. It happens in politics, philosophy, fashion, art and many other social environments. However, I have very seldom seen a conservative reaction as argumentatively stupid and uselessly brute as the one against vegetarianism and veganism.

We are not in Kindergarten anymore and we can’t dig our heads in the sand to avoid facing our toxic (even if comfortable) eating habits. I am saying “toxic” in a metaphorical sense because, independently of possibly being unhealthy, our eating habits are surely ethically questionable.

First of all, eating meat means taking the responsibility of the death of animals for the satisfaction of our palate. To my understanding, that is already a strong enough reason to start doubting that there’s nothing wrong in the way we eat. But there will always be those Einsteins telling that they don’t care because they just “like eating”. No, girl, it is not that you don’t care. You don’t understand, and that makes a huge difference! Do you understand that you value the life of a sentient being, like a chicken or a pig, less than the satisfaction of eating something you could easily avoid without even missing anything in terms of pleasure? It is not that “you just like eating” it is that you are a damn egoist, and a pretty pig-headed one!

The value of sentient life doesn’t convince? Why not talk about the sufferings inflicted on animals for the mass production of eggs, milk and meat? Not to talk about crisis of overproduction, with the consequent mass suppression of animals in order to follow the demands of the market. But I am being too emotional and empathetic, am I not? Yes, because the convinced carnivores are proud of cherishing at the thought of unnecessary pain inflicted for their pleasure’s sake. So many hedonists out there! But very poor hedonists indeed, who struggle to defend what they are accustomed to, more than to actually explore more sustainable and equally enjoyable eating habits.

Are sufferings and utilitarian ethics overrated and not your thing? There is the environmental issue. The breeding industry has one of the greatest impacts on global warming, pollution and exploitation of natural resources. And here they come, the champions of the new Marxism-to-go, with their motto “no ethical consumption under capitalism”. These hipsters of philosophy are telling us that even the cultivation of cereals and other non-animal products is highly harmful for the environment. And, in the capitalistic machine, everything you buy and consume is the result of exploitation. So far so good. Conclusion: you are allowed to eat whatever you like and just don’t care.

Now wait! I was following you, I was enthusiastic of your argument (Marxist references can do no harm, after all) but then, you threw everything in the trash can with the garbage you hold as a logical conclusion. It is like saying that, “since smoking is bad for my lungs but air pollution could be even worse, I can smoke as much as I want”. Kindergarten! Of course capitalistic exploitation – which is often indistinguishable from capitalism itself, is one of the greatest issues in our modern world, but you won’t defeat it with a dumb slogan!

Buying fair trade products is a great idea, just like spreading the practice of eating local and home-grown biological food, not to mention funding and supporting NGOs fighting for sustainability. But only if you hold your mouth shut when it comes to poor vegetarians and vegans, who are just trying to do their best to help.

My beautiful Princess, I am sorry if I have been so harsh this time, but I badly needed to pour out a little, because certain argumentative catastrophes make me sick. I really don’t care if anyone eats meat, goes to McDonalds, is vegan, vegetarian, a saint, the pope or his horned companion. All I care for, is that certain people start thinking and do not blindly follow simplistic mottos, or bury themselves in their bigoted comfort.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha