Thursday, November 29, 2018

Trolley Games and Other Forced Conclusions

[Edit: a reader pointed out that what I wrote about was never the original intention of the trolley problem. He’s correct. I should have been more clear that I was talking about the modern abuse on social media. Please keep that distinction in mind when reading.]

There’s a common concept on the internet that runs along these lines: A runaway trolley is heading towards X people tied to the track. If you pull the switch, the trolley will only hit Y people tied to another track. Do you pull the switch? The idea is to present a dilemma which claims to show what a person really believes, often to discredit a moral stance or play on sympathy to decide it’s better to do a lesser evil (defined by the person presenting the dilemma).

But it’s not merely done through memes. During the war on terror and the 2016 elections, we were fed constant hypotheticals by Catholics who should know better about whether one should torture a terrorist if it was the only way to discover a nuclear weapon set to detonate—the intention being to redefine an intrinsic evil as sometimes justified. The proponent of torture would sneeringly ask, “so, would you let millions of people die just so your hands wouldn’t get dirty?” [§]

In another example, a pro-abortion advocate offered a dilemma over whether a pro-lifer would choose to save a child or an embryo from a fire—the intention being to discredit the pro-life position by showing the person holding it to be insincere (if they save the child) or inhuman (if they save the embryo).

The problem is, these dilemmas are artificial. They don’t consider the possibility that if this were a real situation, people would be trying to do any number of things to save all the people. Like try to turn the switch part way to derail the trolley, trying to board it to jam on the brakes, trying to stop it in some way other than choosing to kill someone. The torture scenario overlooks the fact that by capturing the terrorist in the first place implies that law enforcement has a number of clues to go by. The child v. embryo scenario ignores too many factors on what we actually believe. If these things were real, our reaction would not be the smooth decision these hypothetical situations demand.

While there can be multiple choices besides the one that the questioner tries to force, there is one option that is forbidden us. We cannot do evil so good may come of it. If something is intrinsically evil (always wrong, regardless of circumstances). If it comes to choosing between suffering evil or inflicting it, we do moral wrong if we choose to inflict it.

We know this, generally. Think of all the shows on television where the villains tortures a supporting character while telling the main character that it is their fault for not revealing the information that causes greater evil. But when it’s our own dilemma, we tend to choose whatever favors us, regardless of the harm it causes others.

Whatever the moral dilemma, if we choose to directly do something we know is evil, then it is an evil and unjustified action. But if our action does not intend evil, the evil is less than the good, and we would avoid the evil if possible (this is called “double effect”), then we do not do evil.

Unfortunately, too many confuse the two (or feign ignorance). If a woman chooses to have an abortion (deliberately kill the unborn child), that is an indefensible evil. But if a woman needs an emergency hyrestectomy even though she is pregnant, that is not evil. The intention is to remove the damaged organ to save a life. If it were possible to deliver the baby, saving his or her life, the woman would take that option.

The trolley game and other false dilemmas are never about double effect. They are about choosing to hypothetically perform an evil act. In real life we always have the choice to suffer evil rather than do evil. But we do not have the moral right to choose to do evil.


[§] During election years, there’s a tendency to use those arguments to bully someone into voting a certain way. These people effectively use a trolley game to say “if you don’t vote for my [evil] candidate, you’ll be responsible for the evil the other person does!”

No comments:

Post a Comment