So much of our politics involves casting issues as a choice between good or evil, when actually things are far more complicated.
To get a sense of predicaments we face in politics, take a look at some of the moral dilemmas below, and think how you’d solve them.
1. The Runaway Trolley
You run the switches controlling the local trolley system. One day, a trolley runs out of control, hurtling toward five pedestrians. You can switch the trolley to a different track so that it only kills one person. What do you do?
This is a popular thought experiment, with many variations. The basic conflict is whether you, personally, should do something harmful in order to avoid greater harm that will happen without your intervention. The details of this case have been spelled out in a way so that the consequences of acting or not acting are clear. But we often face this sort choice without being able to predict the results of our action (or non-action).
For instance, we subject our children to medical treatment that’s sometimes painful because it keeps them safe from much worse harm down the road; we often consider giving plea bargains to criminals in the hope of gaining information that will take even worse criminals off the street; and, in war, we sometimes kill civilians in attacks we predict will ultimately save a greater number of them.
How often is this justified? Is there a difference between harm done by commission rather than by omission, or is agency irrelevant? Should we just tally up the potential harm of either path and choose the lesser amount, regardless of who inflicts it?
2. Killing Baby Hitler
Or, at least, we think it would. Maybe Hitler would have been replaced by a dictator who would have unleashed even bloodier wars and massacres. In any event, the choice to kill baby Hitler only seems plausible with the benefit of hindsight: if someone were to walk up to you today and say, “I’m from the year 2130 and that baby over there will grow up to be history’s greatest butcher,” we’d respond with a healthy, baby-saving skepticism.
But, that aside, is if fair to hold someone responsible for crimes they have yet to commit? With advances in genetics, it might one day be plausible to have a “pre-crime” unit that predicts who will commit criminal behavior. Supposing we could determine that someone was likely to become a vicious murderer or pedophile: should we lock them up before they get a chance to act?
Should we care more about the innocent victims, or due process for the accused?
3. The Injured and the Injurer
You’re a medical professional who sees an accident in which a car hits a pedestrian and then crashes into a wall. Without immediate medical care, the pedestrian will likely lose a limb; similarly, without your attention, the driver – who is drunk and was clearly the cause of the accident – will die. It will take time for an ambulance to arrive, and you can only help one of them: which one will it be?
On the one hand, the driver is in greater need: their very life is at stake. On the other hand, the driver is the one who caused the accident, while the pedestrian is suffering through no fault of their own.
Which is the overriding consideration: compassion or culpability?
4. The Scholarship
You’ve been designated to award a scholarship to one of two applicants: the first has better grades, but the second comes from an impoverished background. Who do you give it to?
Meritocracy would seem to tell us to give the scholarship to the first student, though you might make the case that the student with lower grades had to overcome greater obstacles in order to get those grades (a similar argument is made in favor of affirmative action). But the scholarship would no doubt make a greater difference in the life of the disadvantaged student.
Should helping the needy outweigh meritocracy in this case?
5. Sartre’s Pupil
In 1940, as World War II commenced in France, one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s pupils faced a choice. His brother had been killed by the invading Nazis, whom his mother despised. But she had no one to look after her now that the Nazis had taken over France. Should he be a good son and take care of his mother, or a good patriot and join the Free French forces as they fight the Nazis outside of France?
Again, part of the problem is in predicting the future: you can imagine Sartre’s pupil making a huge difference in the life of his mother as opposed to none at all in the fight against the Nazis. But who knows? He might make a huge contribution to the French effort, or do little to improve his mother’s situation.
How does loyalty play out in this situation? Loyalty to the mother who raised him, to his country, and to his dead brother? More, his mother might despise him for failing to avenge her dead son, even if staying with her in Nazi-occupied France winds up saving her life. How much does it matter that the people you’re helping actually appreciate your assistance?
6. The Runaway Trolley, Part Two: This Time It’s Personal
Again, you’re running the switches when another runaway trolley hurtles toward five pedestrians. You can redirect it so that it only kills one person – you – by shunting it toward the switchroom. So, do you sacrifice yourself for the sake of five innocent people?
The number of people saved is adjustable, of course. Maybe you’ll give yourself up for 20 innocents, but not five. But notice how easy it is to sacrifice someone else for the greater good as opposed to nominating yourself. When you’re the one who would have to “take one for the team,” all of a sudden the Prime Directive sounds mighty appealing: it’s really not your place to interfere in the natural course of events, one of those pedestrians was probably the next Hitler, and it might disrupt the time stream, blah blah blah.
Of course, we don’t face situations exactly like these every day. But the challenges these dilemmas involve routinely pop up in real life: conflicts of values, conflicts between duties and consequences, and the difficulty of having to guess what consequences your actions will have.
Using thought experiments to look at some of these elements in isolation can help us to consider how they play out in the real world. And maybe make us less likely to assume the worst about people who reason differently.
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