My Way or the Highway

Why it’s hard to arrive at a decision when faced with 2 horrid choices…

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The other day we were having a heated discussion. The heat was all theirs and I was merely fanning the flames. It wasn’t summer yet so heat stroke wasn’t the thing that we were worried about. But one of the members of our discussion squad almost did jump out of the window from T-11 to prove his point. It’s good that his rationale stopped him, because ethically I had no reason to stop him. Or did I? But then who defines what is right (or for that matter wrong)? Why should helping someone to their feet be an accepted social more? Why is killing other human beings wrong? Don’t try to melt my heart by emotionally blackmailing me from behind those curtains of tears. That’s not logic. So, then is there a period to logic? Are there thus entire arenas where logic can’t be applied? Too many questions? Okay. Let’s take a break and listen to Hurricane from Thirty Seconds To Mars. Jared Leto’s voice is booming through my head:

Tell me would you kill, to save your/a life;

Tell me would you kill to prove you are right…

A very famous related ethical dilemma is the trolley problem. A trolley is running on a track where 2 people are bound to the track through which the trolley is plying. You can access a switch which moves the trolley over to the other track. However, there is 1 person bound to the track on the other side. Just to be clear, the trolley doesn’t slow down when running over any person. Thus if there are 1, 2 or more people bound to tracks and the trolley runs over them, they all die. Do you make the intervention?

trolley+problem1

The dilemma in the given scenario is due to our inability to categorise crime. Is 1 death better than 2 deaths? Who gives us the authority to choose who to “allow” to live? In fact this situation is so common in certain modified scenarios, that it has gained a significant traction among pop culture films. The most striking one which stimulates my memory cells (if there is any such thing ie) is the movie Dark Knight. This Christopher Nolan magnum opus is replete with references to the trolley problem. And at one pivotal point, Batman is forced to choose between the woman he loves and the person he regards as the “white knight” of Gotham. But far more interesting is a quote from the Joker himself:

If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!

In fact, I think he gives us a way to resolve our problem. So, the way to look at the problem cannot be strictly utilitarian. Killing in any form is unjustified. (As to why so, we’ll come to that later. Let that be an axiom for now.) This axiom thus makes us incapable of being the judge, jury and executioner to a life or lives that matter (or don’t). In any event, it cannot be treated as a simple binary problem. So when faced with the given choice, ideally one should look for more information. The Joker through his quote makes a strong point. A mayor is more important than some random Tom, Dick or Harry. One guy on the other track might be more important to save than the other 2 or 5 or 100 lying on the doomed rails for that matter. The other 5 may be criminals. In fact the possibilities are endless. And thus our decision should be a function of the information available to us.

In a variation of the trolley problem, one is asked whether one would push a fat but “guilty and evil” person onto the trolley to deflect it to save the lives of others. This was more an attempt to see whether people differed in views if the closeness to the action directly leading to the death of a fellow being changed the statistical distribution of people wishing to participate.  Interestingly, people favoured killing the embonpoint of a guy. Because he was guilty. The point thus resolves the fact that the information we have available regarding the people we can save (or kill) should change decisions. (For the record, in a paper published by PhilPapers in 2013 by Chalmers et al., 68% prefer switching while 8% were opposed. 24% had other views or couldn’t answer. This was in regard to the original problem I discussed without any additional information provided. This goes to show democracy is not always useful especially with regard critical policy making, for example asking people to vote if Global Warming exists. Yes. Sigh! I am one of those people!)

2000px-the_trolley_problem-svg

But what if you have no information available? In that case run as hard as you can and save the two people. People have built revolutions this way. Overthrown monarchies. Upsetted the balance of power. Subverted authority. Okay, that’s a bit too far, but I’m sure you’ve all heard it. It’s called: For the greater good. But what must be kept in mind is that 2 lives are not always worth more than 1. Not always.

Some of this might appear distasteful to those who think with their hearts and not minds, which is most people I know. If I have a war to win, I will sacrifice a few soldiers than gamble away my general(s). That’s why chess pieces are ranked based on their abilities on the 8×8 checkerboard. That’s why people are rated on the world they live in. That’s why they have different values attached to their lives. Yes, the life of business tycoon or country head is worth more than yours. Perhaps an utopian socialist world order might lead to a 100% utilitarian approach. But the world we live in is not utopian. And decisions taken should reflect that. It should not be simply based on your view of the world or what you desire the world to be. Or mine. Or anyone else’s for that matter. Because as George Orwell said:

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

And that is how the world is. For better or worse, you decide.

4 thoughts on “My Way or the Highway

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