Life and death are mostly incomprehensible, though we often try to convince ourselves otherwise.
Queuing, in line with prescribed social distancing, for bread, apples, other perishables and – opportunistically – for as many ‘non-essential’ bags of top soil (enticingly stacked in the entrance way) that I would be permitted to purchase, I quietly – incredulously – surveyed the range of human behaviours on display at the supermarket: from the kind, cautious and considerate to the downright contemptible. This, and the sorry sight of ancillary collateral damage: tiered, withered and wasted garden plants left to dry and die in the car park, got me thinking about the trolley problem.
Not the shopping cart variety, handles – along with hands – only optionally sanitised on the way in and out of the building, through the crowd-controlling revolving door, but the street-car variety: city centre trams and runaway trains. Those of Philippa Foot’s famous ethical – arithmetical – thought experiment.
There have been various incarnations and reworkings of the trolley problem. In its most basic form, it goes something like this:
A runaway train is hurtling down the track towards five people. They are all directly in its path with no means of escape. You are watching from the train yard and have direct access to a lever which, if pulled, will divert the runaway train along a sidetrack before it reaches the five people who would otherwise surely die in the collision. There is one person, also with no means of escape, on the alternative track. If you do pull the lever then that person will surely die. What do you do? Do you fail to act to prevent five deaths or do you purposefully act to cause one death which, without your intervention, would otherwise not occur?
In its simplest numerical iteration the trolley problem illustrates the crudest fundamental difference between utilitarian (consequentialist) and deontological (rule or first principle) based approaches to ethical dilemmas. Do you act (or not act) because of the predicted likely outcomes of those actions? Or do you act (or not act) because of some perceived intrinsic moral rightness or wrongness associated with the nature of the actions themselves, irrespective of their specific consequences? Are acts the same as omissions? Are five lives worth more than one?
There exist endless qualifying and complicating ‘what ifs‘ that can be added, in any configuration, to the basic numbers game:
What if the one individual on the left hand track is a medic, heavily pregnant with twins and mother to two or three other children waiting for her at home? What if she is a struggling artist, just getting by on state benefits, childless and sterile? What if he is an ageing, eminent oncologist on the brink of a break-through curative treatment for cancer with the potential to save many more lives in the future? What if this one individual is the Pope? The Queen? The President of the United States? Your parent? Your spouse? Your only child?
What if the five people on the right hand track are all escaped convicts guilty of the most heinous crimes against humanity? What if they were all once political prisoners of a fascist regime, rightfully freed and actively fighting social injustices? What if they are five generations of the same farming family? What if they are an influential celebrity family? What if they are members of a secretive religious cult? What if they are all strangers to you and to each other? What if the only thing you know about them is that they are screaming?
What if one, or more, or indeed all six individuals – across both tracks – are trying to commit suicide?
What if the one individual is not on the left hand track at all and you are not in the train yard? What if he is sat on a bridge above the right hand track and you are stood right behind him? What if he is close enough and solid enough so that a well-timed push on your part would stop the train before it hurtled into the remaining five? Would that push be any way different to the pull on the lever?
You can elaborate upon the trolley problem with as many bells and whistles as you like. There are no easy or unproblematic answers to any of these hypothetical scenarios.
However convoluted and unrealistic the details of the trolley problem, I always took for granted that the incontrovertible axiom, steering best moral course through this impossible conundrum, for both utilitarian and deontologist alike, is and always was the self-evident truth of the value of – and therefore preservation of – human life. The moral quandaries arising out of an initially un-nuanced ‘quantity versus quality’ presentation of the moral choice, callously bidding us to pit human lives against each other. But then, philosophy is littered with mistaken assumptions.
Through the eye of the pandemic storm the scene seems sharply – even more distressingly – refocused. You and I can anguish over the rights and wrongs of pulling that lever (or not) with all good intents and still reach contradictory moral conclusions about what to do. But the actual truth of the matter is that neither you nor I even have access to that lever, real or imagined.
The lever is guarded by a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper’s impetus for action (or inaction) arises not from the prayers of the six people on the tracks or from the pleas of their families, watching helplessly in horror. Neither do the predictable physical and psychological strains upon the first responders, whose job it will be to go in and clear up the mess, factor into the gatekeeper’s calculations.
The gatekeeper’s primary concern – and only impetus for any kind of action – is the preservation and continuation of the hurtling trolley, which contains no life-spark of its own, not even the retroviral kind.