31 May 2010

Trains! Death! Moral Philosophy!

The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment created by the Oxford philosopher Philippa Foot in the context of the ethics of abortion. Until recently I had never heard of it even though it's well-known among philosophers. This month, the BBC World Service devoted an entire documentary to it called “Would You Kill the Big Guy?” Despite some hokey production choices (including a philosophy-themed gameshow), the two-part series is well worth a listen. I would have been happy to leave the Trolley Problem to professional philosophers except that as I thought about it, I realized that it's not an exaggeration to call it one of the best tools for moral thinking that we have.

The most basic version of the Trolley Problem is this: There is a runaway train hurtling down a track and five unsuspecting workmen are about to be flattened. You notice a junction that could shunt the train onto another track where there is only a single worker. The lever that operates the junction is right next to you. What do you do? Do you allow fate to take its course and the five to die, or do you intervene, pulling the lever and saving the five but directly causing the death of the one? (We assume that there are no other solutions, such as shouting a warning. Since this is a thought experiment, there is no need to add endless extraneous details such as that the workers can’t hear you because they’re listening to their iPods.)
The vast majority of people from every culture where surveys have asked this question unhesitatingly answered that they would pull the lever. This is true even when it's asked of children. All things being equal, it’s thought better to intervene so that just one innocent person dies rather than five. But of course this is not where we’ll leave the problem.

Now you’re on a footbridge above the scene described above, except that there is no lever or secondary track. There is only a single track with a runaway train and five unsuspecting workmen in harm’s way. You are, however, still in a position to affect the situation: There happens to be a fat man on the footbridge—the “big guy” in the BBC documentary’s title—whose weight would be enough to stop the train and save the workmen. Of course to accomplish that, you have to push him over the railing to his certain death. (Not only are philosophers unfailingly devious in thinking up variations like this, but political correctness apparently does not apply to philosophical hypotheticals. Calling the poor chap “morbidly obese” does not make it any better.)

Uh oh. Few people would be willing to cause the death of a person even to save more lives. We become squeamish when it comes to actively taking a life. A more realistic, but admittedly still absurd, version of the same scenario is that a surgeon—whose medical training must really have been unique—performs a routine check-up on a healthy young man and discovers that five of the man’s organs are perfect matches for five of his patients who need transplants. Let's also assume that the young man wouldn't be missed so the surgeon would face no criminal charges. Would it be morally acceptable for him to kill the young man and save his other patients? Again, most people would say no, notwithstanding the Utilitarian argument that saving five is worth the death of one. Now it has become a problem of intentionality: In the first case, you were merely deflecting harm from five people to one person, but in the second, you have to intend to hurt the fat man to save the five people. 

But what's the point of these exercises, which describe situations that no person will ever face? The Trolley Problem forces us to confront questions that we would otherwise never think about--and it's a patriotic duty to think about them. (I know it seems like the last time in Western Civilization that a philosopher had any influence on politics was when Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great, but bear with me.) The key here is that governments often make choices that are very much like the Trolley Problem--do you put more police in inner cities or in the suburbs? what degree of collateral damage is justifiable in a war zone? who should get what medical care?--but these are posed as practical questions rather than moral questions. In a democracy, it's up to us, the electorate, to make sure that our government's actions--and the actions of any organization that we are a part of--are moral. Ironically, as I'll argue below, politicians are themselves forbidden from asking basic questions in moral philosophy lest they be seen as un-American.

One aspect of last year’s healthcare debate that struck me as particularly absurd was people’s fear of medical rationing. In other words, the fear that healthcare providers would ask questions like: Should we buy one person three extra months of life with an expensive (say $100,000) experimental treatment or should we save the money and help five other people with $20,000 proven treatments? It was a ridiculous argument because in the U.S. with our private insurance we already have medical rationing and we've had it for as long as health insurance has existed. Decisions have to be made about what will be covered by insurance and yet we don’t usually think about it because in the U.S. the person making the decision is typically a mid-level employee at each of our insurance companies armed with actuarial tables and spreadsheets. Contrast that with "socialized medicine" in Britain, where it’s the delightfully misnamed NICE, a department in the National Health Service, that makes these decisions centrally. NICE is constantly scapegoated, but at least people are forced to confront the fact that only a finite amount of money can be spent on healing people and tough choices have to be made. (The head of NICE told the BBC that his job was "awful.") In the U.S., there is no open conversation about how rationing decisions are made, and that’s part of the reason why we spend vastly more on healthcare than other countries but often get less for it.

On the one hand there is the problem of pretending that difficult choices like medical rationing don't have to be made at all, but on the other is the psychology affecting supposedly rational ethical choices. Let’s return to the fat man scenario. As it turns out, people are rather more willing to sacrifice him if it involves pushing a button or flipping a switch rather than physically pushing him. So, yes, the need for a spring-loaded, fat-man-launching platform adds another layer of absurdity but it’s very illuminating. Clearly there can’t be any moral distinction between physically pushing a person to his death and flipping a kill-switch, and yet there is a deep-seated psychological distinction that we often fail to recognize. It's easier to kill at a distance and that is something that modern warfare needs to take into account.

The increasing use of drones by American forces in Afghanistan is a perfect example. The New York Times summarized a scathing report on a recent incident in which a drone-mounted missile killed 23 civilians because the operator received faulty information. Tellingly, while the drone operators have relatively free reign as they sit at consoles in Utah and elsewhere acquiring targets thousands of miles away, the rules of engagement for Coalition ground forces are very tight. Apparently for American troops to do a forced entry into a home in Afghanistan, there must either be gunfire from inside or they need permission from a two-star general. Is an innocent civilian killed by a missile fired from a drone worth less than an innocent civilian killed by a stray bullet? Of course not and yet a double-standard exists. (To be clear, I am not condemning the missile as a tool of war but pointing out the awkward moral issues that result.)

At the United States Military Academy at West Point, cadets take philosophy classes and are forced to grapple with theoretical puzzles like the Trolley Problem. It's well-recognized at least in the military's equivalent of the Ivory Tower that being able to make and justify moral choices even under fire is critical to good leadership. But politicians are surprisingly immune to philosophy even as they command the military to kill on their behalf.

The question of intentionality is a major, if unspoken, justification of the tactics of the "War on Terror." A West Point philosophy professor interviewed by the presenter of "Would You Kill the Big Guy?" chillingly admitted that if terrorism is the killing of civilians in order to destroy a government’s resolve to carry out a policy then the American and British firebombing of Dresden was “unambiguously” a terrorist act, and of course so was Hitler’s aerial raid on Coventry. No politician would ever admit that, of course. Our definition for terrorism (or torture or any other morally questionable act our government might commit) has to end with the unstated exception “unless, of course, we do it.” It's a matter of intentionality: We are America so we always act benignly and even if it looks like we're torturing people or killing an immorally large number of civilians, we don't mean to. This has always been very unsatisfying to me.

Another variation on the Trolley Problem is that the fat man is himself responsible for the presence of the five people on the track below (he was a villain who tied them to the tracks, for example). People are much more likely to say that it would permissible to sacrifice him under those circumstances. This of course is what has become known as the “Ticking Time-Bomb Scenario” that advocates of torture have used again and again. The problem is that the situation is never so cut-and-dried: How do you know in advance that the fat man is responsible? Under President Bush, and unfortunately it seems to be the case under President Obama as well, the answer is "because we said so." It's hardly naive to point out that even in war this is not philosophically sustainable. I have always believed in the maxim "fiat iustitia ruat caelum" (Let justice be done, [even if] it would bring down the sky).

Of course the reality is that the choices in the real world equivalents of the Trolley Problem are never fully known. It's as if you can pull the lever and direct the train into one of two dark tunnels. There are some Americans in one tunnel and some Afghans in another, but you don't know how many of each there are. Of course if you're American then you send the train hurtling into the tunnel full of Afghans. But imagine if we did know how many were in each. How many Afghan lives is an American life worth? It worries me that asking questions makes one a mortal enemy both of knee-jerk patriots (who think the ends always justify the means because our intentions are good) and of the anti-war crowd (who are appalled that one would want to make such a calculation because war is ipso facto wrong).

My country has now spent a total of a trillion dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I shudder to think how much good that money could have done had it been spent stateside. Unfortunately the American presence in both those countries is a textbook example of imperialism (spending vast amounts of money to project power overseas). I don't mean the word "imperialism" to be inflammatory, although I realize that of course it will be taken that way, but my point is merely that projecting power costs a lot of blood and treasure, and this is not a surprising new fact. The British Empire only made a profit because it essentially looted India for centuries (a phenomenon called "economic drain"--which, the claims of recent revisionist histories to the contrary, seems absolutely indisputable to me) and a lot of really immoral things were done to make that possible. We should learn from his and think about whether imperialism is worth it.

In the context of an empire, the fat man of our examples above is the Native (who more often than not is wiry and underfed). The problem with empires is that when you possess one you are like Sisyphus condemned to endlessly repeat the same action: You must push the innocent fat man onto the tracks over and over and over.


On a lighter note, the BBC documentary had great music: It was the promenade theme from Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a suite for piano in ten movements written in 1874. The piece is a description of an art gallery with the promenade theme representing the walk between the paintings. It's a tour-de-force because it really does evoke in sound the experience of viewing art. I happened to buy the CD at a shop in Oxford six years ago (thinking both “who the hell is Mussorgsky” and “hmm… this is cheap”), and I still listen to it every couple of months.

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