The Inevitable Trolley Problem Article… Or: Setting a Better Precedent

This is relevant, I promise.  

You may have heard of the Trolley Problem.  You may have heard variations of the Trolley Problem.  If you’re a nerd like me, you may have seen internet memes and jokes about the Trolley Problem.  On the other hand, you may never have heard of the Trolley Problem, which is why I have to explain it before I can talk about it. 

I hope you’re happy.

What is the Trolley Problem?

(You can skip this section if you know what the Trolley Problem is and are sick of hearing it explained.) 

The Trolley Problem is an ethical conundrum presented as a thought experiment.  

Take the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe thought experiments! Jingle chime jingle ding!

It has several variations, but the most basic one I know of goes as follows: A trolley (or tram car, or some other vehicle on rails) is speeding out of control heading towards five people on the tracks, who cannot get out of the way.  Maybe they don’t know it’s coming and there is no way to warn them, or maybe some dastardly mustachioed villain has tied them there; it matters not.  

You (yes, you!) have the unique ability to save them, because you’re standing next to a lever that switches the trolley onto another track.  Easy heroics, right?  Not so much.  On that other track is a single person who will be killed if the trolley takes that track.  Do you let the trolley continue on its current path and kill five people, or do you pull the switch and kill the one person to save the five?  Which choice is more ethical? 

I Don’t Know. Which One?

(You can skip this section and the next one if you know what precedent utilitarianism is and are sick of hearing it explained.)  

My initial answer to this problem was that deciding not to touch the lever is not mere inaction, but a deliberate decision to kill five people to save one, and therefore ethically unjustifiable.  (In the basic Trolley Problem, we assume we don’t know who any of the people involved are, and so we can assume that each person’s life is on average of equal worth to that of each other.)  Therefore the ethical option would be to pull the lever and sacrifice the one to save the five.  

However, several years ago, someone brought up to me an analogous thought experiment that made me realize I was missing something very important in my approach to the situation.  

This is what my mind looks like as it changes.

Let’s say you have five people in a hospital who each need a different organ transplant.  Maybe one person needs a heart, two people each need a kidney, and two people each need half of a liver.  (Something like that, anyway—the exact organs don’t matter.  It could be a gallbladder, two tonsils, a spleen, and an appendix for all I care.)  Then you have a person walk into the hospital who happens to be a perfect donor for each of them.  Is it ethical to remove this healthy person’s organs to save those other five people, assuming that it would kill the one person and enable the other five people to live long and healthy lives?  Can we justify that?  

Suddenly the answer looks different, even though the situation is functionally the same: five people who are on track to die versus one person who would otherwise live.  What’s our justification for not sacrificing the one to save the five?  

One superficial answer is that a person has the right to not have people steal their organs.  They may also have the right to not have other people steer trolleys into them which wouldn’t otherwise have hit them.  

And yet thousands of hearts are stolen each year by doggies such as this one.  How adorably inconsiderate!

Those rights both sound nice, but they also seem overly specific.  How did we come up with them?  We can’t just make them up because they feel good, after all.  You might as well say that a person has the right to have their life saved if the process of saving them results in fewer total deaths, which means that they might actually be entitled to steal other people’s organs under certain circumstances.  That would give us a right that directly contradicts another right. Which one wins?

We really ought to have some generalized ethical principle that allows us to figure out when and how these sorts of rights apply in a situation.  As it turns out, there is at least one that seems to work. 

So What is This Ethical Principle? 

As far as I can tell, the ethical principle relevant to the Trolley Problem is referred to as “precedent utilitarianism.”  I’d argue it’s relevant to most (if not all) ethical decisions, though not many people talk about it for some reason.  

Maybe because the name is hard to remember?

For reference, the (non-precedent) pure utilitarian approach to the Trolley Problem would be to pull the lever, steal the organs, and thereby maximize the number of people who live.  People generally want to stay alive, so the more people who stay alive, the more utility there is.  

By contrast, precedent utilitarianism is a bit more forward-thinking than that.  It looks at the precedent we establish by steering trolleys into people or stealing organs.  (Hence the name.)  If we decide that it’s acceptable to actively interfere in situations to sacrifice a few people in order to save many, that sounds good at first, except that now the many people we saved will live in a world where each of them in turn can and will be sacrificed at a moment’s notice if at any point in the future they find themselves on the side of the few.  And they know that.  That’s what setting a precedent means.  

And if you can take someone’s very life to save the lives of others, you can certainly commandeer their labor because you have a more worthy purpose for it.  You can force them into servitude to maximize efficiency.  

And what kind of life is that?  Everyone would live in terror, afraid to be judged of less worth to society than someone else, for fear their effort and organs would be seized so that that other person could make “better” use of them.  Most people would be so focused on contributing to society that they would never be able to actually enjoy those contributions, making the whole thing pointless.  Some enclaves might wander away and focus on creating and owning as little of worth as possible so that no one will seek to take from them.  

Building themselves a single-room block cabin with only 5 square inches of floorspace.

And who would have the authority to measure and compare people’s relative worth anyway?  I wouldn’t trust humans to reliably recruit honorable people for that purpose.  The whole thing would become a charade for the benefit of those in power.  

Much like the Trolley Troll, who makes trolley passengers pay a Trolley Troll toll or else he steals their organs and pulls a lever to make the trolley run over five people.

That’s the precedent set when we decide it’s right to deliberately sacrifice someone in order to save someone else.  You can qualify the rule by saying it’s only acceptable for emergencies, which might work in some circumstances depending on what’s at stake, but you’ll have to nail down the border between what is and isn’t an emergency, and there will always be some blurry gray area to it.  However, we need not get into those details at the moment.  

Conversely, if we establish a precedent or rule that says it is wrong to sacrifice someone for someone else’s benefit, then all people can live their lives trusting that they are safe from having their lives and freedom taken from them.  We can feel secure in building up ourselves and contributing to society.  We can enjoy what we create and share it more freely with others when we don’t fear being compelled to do so.  

(I should clarify that this train of reasoning isn’t meant to be an argument against taxation, or against counteracting the buildup of power imbalances.  There are other ethical principles that come into play in those situations and affect how we define people’s various rights.  For example, if a company’s business model relies on creating power imbalances which produce more Trolley Problem situations, they probably don’t have a right to do so without interference.  In just a bit we’ll look at some tools we can use to work through those situations.) 

So Why is This Relevant Now? 

…I did promise, didn’t I?  Wait just a few more paragraphs, because this is where I prepare to blow your mind. 

Try not to be overwhelmed with chalk.

Let’s change the Trolley Problem to be a bit more reflective of real life.  You’re at the switch, and I’m walking along the track with the one person on it, tied to the track with rope.  We both see the trolley headed towards the five people.  I happen to be friends with the five people who are on track to die, so I yell at you to pull the switch.  You refuse, because you’re friends with the person who’s tied up next to me and you want them to live.  I have a pocket knife that can cut through rope, but I don’t have time to run all the way to the other track and cut all five of my friends free before the trolley runs them over.  

What’s the obvious thing we should do here?  I’ll give you a few minutes to think. 

Alright, time’s up.  

What I should do is start cutting the ropes of the person next to me, and while I do that, I’ll shout over to you that it’s safe to pull the lever and send the trolley to this track because in just a minute there’s going to be nobody tied to it.  When you see I’m freeing your friend, you should pull the lever.  My friends get saved because you’re willing to pull the lever, and you’re willing to do that because I made it so that saving my friends would not doom yours.  

It should be an easy solution: neither of us really wants anyone to die, and none of our friends want to die, and lo and behold, nobody dies.  Everyone wins.  Maximum utility.  

The utility graph goes up, and up, and it’s away!  The crowd goes wild!

This isn’t just fantasy, either. It happens in real life, in situations big and small.

For example, once upon a time I was working on a college group project with about three other people in a dormitory where some of us were living.  We were in a time crunch, so we were very stressed and hurrying to get it done.  

At one point, one of the group members got hungry and wanted to leave to get food.  The other group members didn’t want him to leave, because we needed his work in order to finish the project before the deadline.  That was a zero-sum approach: either he left and we lost time, or he stayed and was hungry and upset and might not do a good job.  Either way there would have been a pointless fight and damaged relationships.  

However, I knew that what the hungry group member actually wanted was food, not to leave.  Considering our options beyond the two already mentioned, I suggested that one of the other group members could offer some food from his own supply, since we were already in his room.  Then the hungry group member could eat and work at the same time. This met with unanimous approval, and so the problem was solved.  

That’s what it looks like when you pull the lever but untie the one person on the other track before they’re run over. Now think about how much that scales up.

You may have also heard of people fighting over portions of a metaphorical pie when they could be making the pie itself bigger.  However, I think the Trolley Problem is a more compelling image for my purposes, even if the metaphor goes off the rails more easily.

So What’s the Mind-Blowing Part? 

Not impressed yet?  Tough crowd.  Very well, then.  

The Trolley Problem is relevant because real life isn’t like the Trolley Problem, but we’re treating it as though it is.  Not only that, but we’re still getting the wrong answer by forcing others to make the tradeoffs we think they should make.  We compete to dictate what costs should be paid and what risks should be taken, and by whom.  We’re trying to sacrifice each other through coercion and deception to get what we want instead of considering that people might be willing to help us out if we helped them get what they needed.  Instead of working together to figure out how to save everyone, we’re still arguing about which people we should allow the trolley to run over.

The ethical principle of precedent utilitarianism is a factor in my belief that we can only build a better world if we practice dealing with such conflicts without sacrificing each other.  We need to learn to think constructively and put in a bit of extra effort to create an outcome acceptable for everyone, instead of just taking what we think we’re owed.  

I don’t know about you, but I’m not giving up until everyone wins.  

We’re going to have to build the trolley tracks that take us out of this tunnel.

Oh, Really?  You and What Army?

Army isn’t quite the right word, but to answer your question, Skeptical-Section-Headers-Standing-In-for-the-Reader… you, I hope. 

wait what.

Don’t sell yourself short.  You wouldn’t be here unless you thought that the world could be better and that you might have a role to play in that.  

You want to stand up against polarization and extremism, against people trying to sacrifice each other for the sake of their own tradeoffs?  You want to help people understand each other and cooperate to build a world with fewer cruel tradeoffs?  I’ve got the tools you need.  Stay tuned.  

Much more organized than this, but I’m slowly learning the value of the human art of maintaining a dynamic mess.