Originally published in French. Translation by Épiphanie.
Trigger warning: Death, suicide, and murder. Trolley problem.
This is quite the conventional and ethical conundrum: You are near train tracks, and a train is rolling down the hill. It is going to run over 4 people who are tied to the rails of the main track. However, you can change the train’s direction to a secondary track by pulling a lever; so that it runs over only one guy, also tied down the rails. Should you pull the lever?
I do believe there is a more interesting way to frame it: What would you choose if you are yourself tied to the rails, alone, while the train is not heading toward you yet. My own answer is very simple: I want the person deciding where the train should go to have no doubts they should pull the lever! Because, for lack of context, I assume that the other four people are just me, or rather copies of me. That’s a bit simplistic, of course they are not perfect clone. But as far as concrete predicates go, they are indistinguishable. That is to say I have odds of being on tracks alone of 1 in 5, and odds for being in the group of 4 in 5. And tell you what, I prefer dying with 20% probability because of what someone did, rather than to die with 80% probability because no one was ever willing to take the burden of responsibility.
I know many would not pull the lever, or at least be very reluctant to. That is precisely the reason I am writing this post: I wish to make it public that I believe people should pull the lever. More importantly, I wish that many many more people would also share publicly this opinion. Then, if it is of public notoriety, the one who has to pull the lever would know they can do it without any remorse, as they will not have to face any societal consequences for what they’ve done. So all in all, this would raise my odds of survival of 60 points! That’s quite something
But what if it were to truly happen?
Be aware that I am not saying anything more than what I have literally written. I have full rights over inconsistencies. Were I to be on the tracks alone, there is no telling what I would do. Maybe I would cry and plead not to pull the lever, maybe I would depict the other four people as worse than Hitler, or I would indulge the person into thinking they’d bear the burden of my death. Once I know that the probability of me dying jumps from 20 to 100%, I would -I presume- fight hard for my survival. Similarly, if I am on the tracks all alone, and I am the one who has to decide where the train should go, I am not plaging at all I would pull the lever.
Or maybe I will. Maybe I will be consistent. Right now, up there in my apartment where the worst thing I can think of to happen is my contract not being renewed, I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like. I can say what I hope for: I wish to be consistent in this situation… It would be extremely unfair and pointless to have another person bear my death on their own hands along the guilt that goes with it.
I see however only one problem to this policy. If this situation were to to be iterated frequently enough such that there is a selection mechanism among the survivors’ behavior, then eventually the altruists would dwindle out in favor of egoists. So I am going to be optimistic and assume in this post that this trolley situation happens only in an exceptional fashion.
As with many such similar problems, it seems to me that one of the main flaw of the question is in everything that is not said. Everything that makes up the problem in itself, even, is ignored in favor of something so theoretic that it turns the problem so abstract it has no solutions at all.
For instance, one of the important assumption for this problem is the one that people are chosen at random. Let us break this assumption: For instance, suppose the villain of this story has awaited knowing everyone’s opinion before unfolding their scheme. The villain tie people of the opinion “do not change the train’s direction” on the main track and on the second track, people of the opinion “change the train’s direction”. Then I would be on the secondary track, and if one were to listen to me, I would die. Yet I could have survived had I just thought like everyone “don’t pull the lever”. When depicting this situation, I realise there is something very paradoxical about it. But what I’m really interested in, is that by removing the hypothesis of randomness, the 20/80% ratio does not hold anymore. That is what I am a bit anxious about when writing this post. I wary it becomes fuel in favor of killing people having the same position as I do, while changing nothing for others.
Another assumption I did not take into account thus far: Who are the people tied to the rails? If the train kills me, and the 4 others are worse-than-Hitler people, I would be a bit embarrassed (and dead). Theoretically, if I were tied alone and the other group contains Hitler along with few other dictators, I would still like to be saved. Note that I am against the death penalty, no exceptions and in favor of a just trial for anyone, no exceptions. My question is different however, and I still am pondering over what answer would be mine. I have no intentions for my life to be sacrificed for that of some tyrants. But I have also no intentions to be the kind of person that says their life is better than that of four others’, let alone that it can be decided in few mere seconds.
The last assumption that has been ignored is how did we get here in the first place. I mean, it’s not your mundane day-to-day situation! And this question is important even more so if we want to avoid it happening once more. The villain scenario is rather far-fetched, it seems this kind of situation can happen in real life, where technical decisions have to be taken fast. It can be, for instance, whether to choose between one pedestrian and a car full of passengers. Or between 4 pedestrians and a car with only one passenger. Or one worker working on the rails versus several working together. And so on and so on...
Let’s be even more cynical: imagine an accident in a company which may kill four managers (by destroying their office)m and you can prevent that by killing a single workperson instead. If people follow the policy and “always pull the lever”, none of the managers would have any real and strong incentive to ensure that this kind of incident does not occur anymore. They are always being saved and workpeople are being killed one by one. If this incident ks going to occur five times or more, not pulling the switch at all may actually save more lives in the long run. Once again, I am not necessarily asking for you to pull the lever in this kind of situation.
This post is just long for “I am taking a very strong precommitment for a situation whose assumptions are so strong themselves that I cannot fathom they would ever hold”. Still, I was about to write a post on Atlas Shrugged (spoilers:) and I foresaw I would have to explain why I’d never swear in good faith that “by my life and my love of it, [...] I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”