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A trolley problem

And, to cheer you all up, here is another game. Imagine the situation, and choose what would you do:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are 44 million people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that further down the side track there is another lever, and another two sets of tracks. One of those two tracks is empty, leading to a place where the trolley would safely just grind to halt. But on the other set of tracks there are approximately 7 billion people tied up and unable to move. Next to that another lever there is a person who looks angrily at you and shouts "If you switch that lever making the trolley to come my way, I will operate my switch so that all of those 7 billion people will die!".

You have two (and only two) options:

1. Do nothing, in which case the trolley will kill the 44 million people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track, in which case either no-one will die, or 7 billion people will die, but you can't be really sure which decision that other person will do, you only know that the person has explicitly stated that he will choose to kill all the 7 billion people.

Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

Okay, for the sake of the argument, I can imagine we could wish there to be other options, like

3. Give knives to the 44 million people so that they can cut themselves free so that not all of them will die.

But, I'm afraid that in the real world it isn't quite that simple - if we choose not to touch the lever, it is still possible that the other person operating the next lever just deliberately brings up another trolley setting it barreling down the track where 7 billion people are tied up. For example; after all the atrocities of the Russian army the people of Ukraine probably aren't that willing to settle for the 2014 borders, but would prefer to re-take all of the Donbass and Crimea too. I can understand that. But, Crimea hosts the Sevastopol naval base, and Putin has said number of times that Sevastopol is crucial for the strategic safety of Russia. I wouldn't be surprised if Putin resorts to nuclear weapons if it looks like Crimea might fall to non-Russian hands. And I grew up in the Cold War era, I simply don't believe there could be anything like "a restricted nuclear strike", but any use of nuclear weapons is pretty likely going to trigger the good old Mutually Assured Destruction, wiping out a lot of mankind instantly, leaving the rest suffering from the fallout, triggering nuclear winter which is likely to kill all the harvest, leading to hunger and starvation among those small remote populations which might survive a total nuclear war.

So, this is why I tend to think that at the moment the world finds itself facing only options 1. and 2.

Or, okay - okay - just maybe, kind of a maybe, possibly there could also be alternative 4. to choose from:

4. There are some people near that another lever-operator, and they decide that they simply can't allow that one man to kill 7 billion, so they use some means to persuade that one man to step away, then securing the lever in such a position that, if heading that way, the trolley will go down the empty track where it will face obstacles making it to stop without killing anyone.

But I wonder why would anyone want to choose 4. Or would someone want to choose that? Okay, sorry for my sarcasm - I'm afraid that anyone who would love to choose 4. is not in the position to affect that another lever-operator. Yet, there is a slight hope that either there are some members of the powerful elite who somehow manage to choose 4, or that a some sort of miracle would happen, waking up the masses so that more and more people would question the state-run propaganda machine, awakening that good old revolutionary spirit with the power of the masses doing the persuading stuff, electing a new kind of leadership. Well, I really don't know, I really don't know. Meanwhile, personally I'm kind of a ready to face the consequences of 2., just because what happens that happens. What about you?

tags: 
philosophy
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36 users have voted.

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Option 2, of course. I can only be accountable for my own actions.

A further question, out of philosophical curiosity; Would you choose differently, if "the person opearating the other lever" would not be a person making moral choices, but a mechanical machine instead? That machine would be making a random choice each time a trolley approaches, 50% of time sending the trolley to the empty track, 50% of time sending the trolley to the track where 7 billion people are tied.

So, if that was the case, you'd have these options:
1. Do nothing, in which case the trolley will kill the 44 million people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track, in which case there is 50% chance that no-one dies, and a 50% chance that 7 billion people die.

In that case, would you be the only person bearing full moral responsibility of the consequences of either pulling or not pulling the lever? Or would you like to go further up / down the chain of responsibility, asking "well, then, who built that machine operating the other lever? Who gave orders to install that machine there? Who obeyed the orders to install the machine? Who made the decision to tie 7 million people on that track? Who obeyed the orders to tie people on tracks?"

Option 2 feels more right, since the possibility of saving everyone feels better and "more right" than just falling prey to apathy and not doing anything. That is what I personally feel more inclined to.

On the other hand, either with the extra branch and possibility of saving everyone, or without it, as on the more traditional trolley problem, on the hard, cold, purely rational way, killing 44 million people would be better than the possibility (or certainty, were this the more traditional version of this dilemma) of killing seven billion people. But if humans were hard, cold rational creatures, we would have stopped having children as soon as we developed an abstract understanding of what having a conscious mind means, as we would see that being alive brings about suffering, and suffering is not desirable, so not bringing more life into this planet so they don't have to endure suffering would be the most reasonable thing to do.

If one follows that line of thought, it would probably be wiser to kill all people on both rails, as they're all experiencing the suffering that naturally comes with being alive. That would contradict what I just said before, but I think such an answer would be out of the scope of the dilemma.

Anyway, I know there is some sort of philosophical current or at least an author that has proposed before exactly that, that the most reasonable thing for us humans to do is to not have children, as life brings about suffering, and suffering should be eliminated and so on. Just to be clear, I'm not talking about Buddhism here, I remember this proposal was more like a diagram divided into four quadrants and all of the possibilities show that consciousness is either a negative, or a neutral thing, never a positive. Personally, I can't agree with that myself, I find it a rather depressing and negativistic worldview, as even though life, and, more specifically, consciousness, bring about suffering, it also brings the possibility of joy, happiness, love, and sharing those experiences with other beings.

But let's entertain the possibility of carrying through with not perpetuating humanity anymore, let's say we all reached a point where humans have somehow become those cold-hard-purely-rational beings, and it was determined through centuries of scientific research that it is mathematically impossible to be conscious and have a net positive of even 1*10^-20 of happiness in one's life, so it was decided that everyone will be rendered unable to have children. We know about Darwinian evolution, so it is also decided that all life, not only on the planet Earth, but all across the universe, should be eliminated, to prevent consciousness to ever arise again. We also know that life can form spontaneously under certain conditions, so we decided that even elements which can combine with each other should not exist, so life and the possibility of consciousness is never possible again. This is at the far future, many millennia from now, so humanity has the technology to build a machine that changes the fundamental laws of the universe and renders it impossible for chemical reactions to occur. We can keep stretching this reasoning as much as we like, for example, humanity has made contact with all other conscious races in the universe and all have agreed that this is the right thing to do and they decide to cooperate in building the machine. Well, but what about the other animals who can't make decisions? "We are just doing them a favour by preventing them to know what consciousness and self-awareness mean", one could easily reply. Okay, but what exactly is the hard limit of consciousness and self-awareness? Could an alien race which is at the level of pre-historic humans really decide what it means to annihilate all life in the universe, or should we just disregard their opinions as they are still too close to the other lowly animals and therefore their opinions are not worth listening to? What if they actually want to develop technology and philosophy instead of following this route, because they are still too primitive to understand it? Should we give them time to reach the conclusion that consciousness and self-awareness are not worthy, or should we just eliminate them because we, superior beings, already know for sure they will reach that conclusion anyway?

But let's go even further into the absurd and imagine the machine was built, and it was determined that it will also render it impossible for another Universe to ever come into existence. Let's disregard the slippery slope here in front of us with all the unanswerable questions of "what constitutes existence in itself, and how can one be sure that it would be impossible for another existence to come into being". The machine is turned on, and the whole Universe turns into frozen diamond, for ever. Was it worth it? I don't know, to me it seems like a completely nihilistic and apathetic approach to problem-solving. Maybe all those races of the universe could have worked together to build, instead, a machine that brings eternal happiness to every living being of every corner of the universe. Death and disease would never happen again, doubts would never come to their minds again and all questions would be answerable. No tyrannies would ever come into existence again, and if an individual wished to live in complete peace, they could even use the technology freely and readily available to build themselves an universe-in-a-bubble and have a whole existence all for themselves, it could even include suffering, pain, and death, if so they wish. But instead, this intergalactic union of sentient beings had focused so hard on the negative sides of consciousness existing, that it never came across their minds that they could mitigate suffering and keep existing, instead of eliminating both all at once. So they met their demise, and, with that, destroyed the possibility of another possibility ever arising again, for ever.

I think it is not too hard to draw a parallel here with the current state of the human race. There is a ruling elite, much like the conscious races of this thought experiment, which can only see the scenario from a single point-of-view, one which tells them to build more disposable things, destroy more disposable things, have more guns and more bombs, because that will give more profit or whatever it is that they want, instead of cooperating to build better living standards and infrastructure for all the other humans and living beings of this planet, instead of solving the climate crisis and so on. I don't want to make this into a binary us-and-them thing, though, it is more complicated than that. Many of us regular people are like the primitive alien races which can give answer but not quite understand the big picture. Some are more like a possible alien race which agreed to build the machine, but they're not too sure if they really want that, yet they press the button to turn the machine on anyway, because they feel coerced by peer pressure, "oh, we can't look bad in front of our peers now that we were allowed into the council of the universe-eraser machine". And so on.

Sláva Ukrayíni!

We know from the past that option 1, in a very similar context, led to World War II. The mistake was to believe that Hitler would stop once he got the annexation of Austria. But after that he wanted Czechoslovakia and then invaded Poland and then WWII started.

"You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war."

― Winston Churchill

OPtion2. Hot topic but nicely written as always

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