Current Affairs is one of the smarter Very Online socialist mags, but their recent article, “The Trolley Problem Will Teach You Nothing Useful About Morality,” is thunderously bad. It’s like one of those specialty sushi rolls of bad, where you get the raw bad inside, the cooked bad on top, little bad eggs for a garnish, and crunchy bad skin to wrap it in. The authors have given no thought to the processes of theory-construction or inquiry by reflective equilibrium, and they don’t seem to take seriously the phenomenon of fundamental moral disagreement, as I’ve remarked before. They think moral philosophy should proceed didactically: students should just ask Current Affairs writers what’s right and wrong. This is the view of a child.
Here are just a few of the article’s claims.
- The trolley problem is bad because it’s not what “an ordinary human is likely to encounter.”
- The trolley problem is bad because humans would panic if they actually did encounter it.
- The trolley problem is bad because it’s “gruesome,” “dark,” and “horrific.”
- The trolley problem is bad because it puts us in the middle of a “decision-making pathway.”
- The trolley problem is bad because trolleys are “outmoded” and travel too slowly to kill.
- The trolley problem is bad because it distracts us from discussions about “power.”
- The trolley problem is bad because it’s “based on questionable premises.”
- The trolley problem is bad because it’s a “no-win situation.”
- The trolley problem is bad because actually, moral questions are “incredibly easy.”
- The trolley problem is bad because it doesn’t require personal sacrifice.
All of these claims are thoughtless and would have been sent back by a real editor who knew anything about why philosophy, or intellectual inquiry in any field, works the way it does. It’s instructive, however, to see exactly why these assertions are so silly, and how they relate to one another.
(1) Bad Because Unrealistic
Some kinds of questions ethical theory tries to answer include: Which states of affairs are better than which other states of affairs? Which choices are better than which other choices? Those are not the only questions in ethical theory, but they’re some of the important ones. One way to answer such questions involves trying to abstract away the normative force of some or another aspect of reality. This is no different from the idealized world of scientific experiments and pop-quiz puzzles. Nor is it any different from scientific theory. Imagine someone were to ask: “Why do we study black holes? Nobody is likely to encounter them.” This person would be mocked relentlessly, as the writer of the trolley article should be. The reason we study black holes is that they have interesting properties while obeying the same physical laws as the rest of reality – and besides, they’re there. Similarly, in studying trolley problems we figure that they have interesting properties while sharing a normative structure with the rest of reality. Rennix and Robinson come off as not just ignorant but incurious here.
Situations involving life-and-death choices were probably quite common throughout human history, replete as it was with war and disease and deprivation. This fact is invisible to the authors, who seem to genuinely think that nobody suffers unless some “structural” or “systemic” force causes them to. Of course, there are also conceivable modern-day ethical quandaries that are quite similar to the trolley problem. Imagine you’re appointed the head of a medical research team trying to find the cure for a disease. The disease has a major strain and a rare strain, and the cure for one won’t work for the other. The team had been set to work on the rare strain, You’re reasonably certain a cure for one can be found within a year, and the other within another year. In that second year, the rare strain, if not cured, would claim one life; the major strain, if not cured, would claim five. Do you tell the team to switch? This is the sort of issue that bioethicists deal with constantly – not armchair bioethicists, either, but ones who consult with researchers in labs and in the field. But the soi-disant libertarian socialists at Current Affairs seem to believe that the world has infinite resources and that it requires zero tradeoffs.
Or, of course, one might agree with Peter Singer, a professional ethicist, that money puts us all in the position of being able to save lives almost at will, and that most of us choose not to. This, of course, is a point that political radicals often find inconvenient, preferring to discuss “structures” and “systems.” They also ignore that there is a whole field called “applied ethics,” which – you guessed it! – is much more conducive to the realistic applications of ethics than theoretical ethics. Crazy stuff!
(2), (5) Bad Because Humans Would Panic; Bad Because Trolleys Are Outmoded, Slow
Ridiculous and not worth a response.
(3), (8) Bad Because “Gruesome,” “Dark,” “Horrific” – “No-Win Situation”
The authors write: “To encourage someone to think about these questions is to encourage them to be a worse and more callous person, and what the trolley problem largely shows is that it’s very easy to temporarily become a psychopath if your professor says doing so will be intellectually useful.” But what is so dark about the thought experiment and what is so psychopathic about making a choice within it? It can’t be the mere fact of death. We will all die. (Maybe this is a fact that Rennix and Robinson have not been taught at Harvard Law and Yale Law, respectively.) So it must be the idea of making a choice involving death. But there’s nothing particularly crazy about that either. People often take on the burden of making end-of-life decisions about parents and grandparents, about weighing length of life against pain reduction and other considerations. Is this practice psychopathic?
The authors also call the trolley problem a “no-win situation.” This is because, no matter what, somebody must die – murdered, in some sense, by us. But by the same token we could see the trolley problem as a “no-lose situation.” This is because, no matter what, somebody must live – saved, in some sense, by us. Indeed, it is hard to know what a “win situation” would look like for Rennix and Robinson. A perfect world? A libertarian socialist paradise? A revolution with no pain, a complete overthrow of social conditions that does not impinge on anyone’s feelings or preferences? But what use would that be for moral theory anyway? “You can make the world perfect. Do you do it?” Like: yes?
(4), (6) Bad Because In Medias Res; Bad Because Not “Structural” or about Power
I have some bad news: everything we do is in the middle of innumerable causal chains. Every decision we ever make in this life is already “structured” by billions of choices and other events, back to the Big Bang; to the actions of our far ancestors in the evolutionary bottleneck; to how our parents were raised, and their parents; how our schools were set up, who was on the school board, what televisions shows were on when we were in grade school; and so on. After all that critique about the lacking “realism” of the trolley problem, Rennix and Robinson seem to want to go back to some Unmoved Mover state, some Eden unstructured by anyone else’s decisions. That doesn’t exist. You’re immersed from birth in a web of foreign effects; if you want to call that web “neoliberalism” or whatever then go ahead, I guess. But no one, not bloggers and not Bernies, can unspin it.
One of the benefits of writing for a group of high-brow leftist acolytes seems to be the ability to throw out words like “structural” and anticipate nods and claps and expressions of seeming comprehension. This kind of language serves to obscure meaning and to gesture at sophistication. The definition and moral valence of “power” is — perhaps by design — not at all clear. Activists slip constantly between “power-to” and “power-over.” And in neither case are our ethical theories, or the intuitions of most people (i.e. not libertarian socialists), univocal on whether power is somehow bad.
It’s particularly odd to see the allergy to power expressed in this essay because Current Affairs has consistently taken the position that the goal of leftist politics – which they take to be a moral endeavor – should be to achieve power and impose one’s values on the world; that politics is a contest of domination, and that anyone who doesn’t try to dominate one’s opponents is making some sort of category mistake. But here the stance is that “no individual person, or small group of elites, should actually have decision-making authority in extreme situations like this.” Even a democracy, however, would ask them to vote one way or the other. The impression given is that they don’t really know what they value and what they don’t.
(7) Bad Because “Questionable Premises”
The trolley problem is a thought experiment. Thought experiments don’t have premises. Arguments have premises.
(9), (10) Bad Because Ethics is Easy; Bad Because No Sacrifice Involved
One of the strangest ideas in the essay is that ethics is easy but that the trolley problem is intended – as part of some weird neoliberal conspiracy of philosophers – to make it seem difficult. But what the authors actually say is that almost everybody in an introductory ethics class will agree on the right course of action in the trolley problem, and their examples of “easy” questions are in fact questions on which there is substantial disagreement – things like: “Are there any justifiable reasons for the existence of borders? Does capitalism unfairly exploit workers?” (Pleonasms like “justifiable reasons” and “unfairly exploit” really piss me off.) Of course, ethicists do spend plenty of time debating questions like these, coming up with arguments and objections and so forth. But why would a college course on ethical theory spend time on easy questions in ethics? Do college courses on number theory spend time adding two and two together? What is Current Affairs trying to turn philosophy into?
What Rennix and Robinson seem to want to do is to make classes in ethical theory into classes of ethical training. They seem to think: a course in ethics should make people ethical – by telling them the answers to easy moral questions, then showing them that those answers require them to make sacrifices, and avoiding putting them in a “neoliberal” position in a “gruesome” thought experiment. We don’t require this of any other field. We don’t expect a physicist solving equations about a football game to join an NFL team. Moreover, there is little fundamental agreement among ethicists on moral questions. The writers seem to have no idea why this is. If they were curious people, a course in metaethics might be interesting to them. Metaethics is a field where we ask what the foundations of ethics could be. What are the metaphysics, semantics, and epistemology of ethics? How is it that people disagree about what’s right and what’s wrong, and what resources do we have to overcome these disagreements? That’s in addition to courses on applied ethics and moral psychology – and, naturally, all of the other topics besides the trolley problem that make their way into courses in ethical theory.
Oliver Traldi is a writer living in the United States. He has a bachelor’s degree in classics and a master’s degree in philosophy.