Regarding this article:

https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/11/the-trolley-problem-will-tell-you-nothing-useful-about-morality

Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of time to write clearly here; but I wanted to jot down a few thoughts since I disagree with the above article (not its focus on morality so much as its dismissive critique of the class of problems as a whole).

That somewhere on earth somebody isn’t facing a tragic choice like this is on the face untrue. It perhaps is less common in the United States but these stark choices come up often all over the world. Not to use somebody else’s experience to argue my opinion — but I see this story as one where hard choices had to be made — and where outcomes were never perfect, but had to be accepted:

We think we’re rational, self-aware, conscious. We think we have a set of policies for how we’ll act given certain situations. But the fact is we largely operate on a set of simple rules. Most of us use a “calculus of suffering” — a philosophy promoted by Peter Singer. The philosophy weighs the quantity of lives and scores suffering with an arithmetic value. It’s a short term way of looking at the world and plays to our emotions.

Trolley car problems can be annoying because they cast the real world in a stark light; reducing an issue to almost comic proportion. The article above would say over-simplified.

The typical trolley car puzzle is simple; something like “should you choose to save the one person on the tracks, or the five people on the other track?”

And what it forces us to examine is quality of life, not simply quantity. We’re trained to think in terms of a simple calculus; that lives can be added up, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (as Spock puts it).

But this simply isn’t true. What humans are is extremely good at is dying in large quantities. We almost have an instinctive feeling in our bones about this; our genes have narrowly evaded millennia of natural and unnatural pogrom; we’ve seen our comrades swept away by ecosystem collapse, internecine stresses etc. And what survives is that which passes through the bottleneck; because the grim reaper doesn’t care about love, morality, ethics, feelings, pain. nature tries every path simultaneously and kills off clumps of us entirely randomly. If you’ve ever played with artificial life systems; it’s a common technique for evolving those systems to kill half the population that fails to move towards the arbitrary goal post that you’ve set. Life is no different. We get confused because we are alive, and in life, that life has meaning to the world outside of us. I do think life is extraordinarily special and unique and I want to see life continue to exist and flourish, but I harbor no illusions that the universe cares in any way.

We have examples from our own recent history — where entire peoples have been literally loaded up onto trains and hastened to their deaths. Those decisions rested on many pivot points along the way; points of resistance could have slowed or stopped those tragic outcomes. If you’ve ever stood at ground zero at Hiroshima and contemplated the depravity of humankind you’d know that we do face these self-induced criticalities and that we must find a way to tame ourselves. There’s a science-fiction novel “The Dark Forest” which paints this picture in a light of more universality; and must in some way have been informed by the Chinese heritage of the author — because it takes the readers to a place that is so ghastly that you have to read it yourself. So as to avoid any spoilers I’ll just share with you a video — but you really must read this book if you have a chance. https://vimeo.com/139097473

One challenge with trolley car problems is that it demands one to take on personal agency. The problem is that when we personally are given this agency, the choice to decide, then we have to suddenly take on the burden of decision making; to be active rather than passive. Being passive we can avoid culpability by some measure; we live in a world where making decisions creates liability and where we have to carry the emotional burden of those decisions for the rest of our lives. But the acuteness of critical decisions does often come down to a single pivot point. Each of us has tremendous agency; we could each of us choose to spend our lives to try and deflect some great harm we see. And in fact some of the less sane among us do; pursuing erratic quixotic or malevolent goals that are either innocent or cause great harm. We need to recognize our personal power.

One of my favorite traits that I admire in people is the selflessness. Another challenge with trolley car problems is that they require us to become systems thinkers; to think not of ourselves, or personal gain, but how to help the system survive — sometimes even if it hurts ourselves. If some crisis is looming, can you choose to put yourself in harms way to try help? And can you make a reasonable decision? And one of the traits that I least admire is when people conflate a fear of a situational outcome (global warming, a shooting) with concerns over personal safety; I don’t consider it brave to protect oneself foremost. I’m especially unimpressed by people who want to lifeboat; who use their wealth and power to run away from the kinds of crisis we’re all facing in the world. There are many kinds of behavior that we perhaps don’t give a damn about; perhaps we don’t see homelessness as a tragedy for example, but at some point there are things we should care about.

My personal measuring stick is “what kinds of decisions maximize biodiversity”?. I feel like it’s a better way of thinking about how and where to move through the world personally. But either way — we each have some kind of measure of life, or measure of the world, and it feels like we have to act on those measures — to find ways to protect what we love — more than just protect our own asses, or the asses of our kin, or the asses of cute fuzzy animals that we empathize with.

In a trolley car problem you get to be outside of the situation, but in life of course you’re always on one of those tracks. I’d like to imagine that in some cases one can choose to harm oneself to help others — and for me thats what the core of the Trolley car problem is — putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes and feeling out the consequences of personal agency and whats best for the system.

SFO Hacker Dad Artist Canuck @mozilla formerly at @parcinc @meedan @makerlab