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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...


Would You Kill the Fat Man?
That's the question posed in the title of a book on what philosophers call "the trolley question" or sometimes "trolleyology". I am not going to pose as an expert on this, or try to say that my thoughts on the question are final. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this problem, in a variety of contexts, and I do think I have intelligent things to say about it.

The Basic Trolley Setup
Scenario 1: There is a trolley coming down the tracks. The trolley is unable to stop. It is about to hit five people. You cannot move the people or warn them. You are next to a switch. You can switch the trolley to another track, where another person stands. That person will die if you pull the switch, but you will have a net savings of four lives (five minus one) because of your choice. Would you pull the switch?

Now, many people say "well, I'd pull the switch." But, as it happens, I was telling this scenario to a friend, and I didn't get more than halfway through the setup when she said "Oh! Stop! My blood pressure is already getting out of whack!" So even this level of the setup is complex--emotionally, spiritually, morally, intellectually--for many people.

Now, Scenario 2: You have the same setup, but instead of pulling a switch, you push an extraordinarily fat man in front of the trolley with your hands. Again, the only way in the scenario to save the five people, as it is set up, is to push the man. Sometimes, the scenario is modified, so that it's not the man who is fat, per se, but so that he's a man attached to a very large boulder. But in general, this is called "the fat man" scenario. Would you push the man?

Many people who made it past the first scenario say that they're much more squeamish about pushing the man than pulling the switch. The trolley question is central to many schools of thought. It asks questions about what our emotional selves have to do with our rational thought (after all, isn't pulling the switch the same, morally, as pushing the person? But it doesn't feel that way, does it?).

It raises larger questions about how we determine what is "right". Other versions of this problem take on questions like whether it would be okay to kill a man who has a rare blood type in order to save the lives of five people with an illness that required blood transfusions. Even though, in theory, this is just another version of the utilitarian "trolley question", even people who feel accustomed to the idea of killing the man by pushing him feel upset at the idea of killing someone to harvest his blood. It just feels wrong (and perhaps it is. . . Stick with me. . . ). But amongst people who think it is wrong, there are varying schools of thought as well. Some talk about it in terms of "negative" and "positive" expectations (and I'll probably screw up or reverse the distinctions). I believe the "negative" means "things we don't do" and the "positive" means "things we should do if we can". Theorists who talk about negative expectations would say that certain types of behavior--not harvesting the blood and organs of a person--are just more important than our "positive" duties to help others who are sick. 

Another, completely different school of thought says that it's not necessarily a difference of negative or positive duties that separates the scenarios, but a longer term calculus of morality. Yes, killing to save five people takes a problem that is one dimensional (should I kill?) and makes it two dimensional (can I kill to save lives?). But yet a third dimension exists. These theorists say that that dimension is the moral expectation that guides society. Though in isolated cases it might be morally good to kill one person to save five, the expectation that that could happen would throw life into chaos. People who expected to be attacked and "harvested" would be constantly on the alert and lacking trust in other people. There would be paroxysms of violence. People would steer clear of hospitals and cause diseases to spread, out of fear of what might happen to them. So, when you look at moral questions from a "utilitarian" point of view, the original simple questions get more and more complex.

What Does This Have to Do with Transportation?
You might say--and I guess I wouldn't blame you--that I'm stretching the subject of my blog. Yeah, this is called the "trolley question", but this is not really something about transportation. And true enough, I have been known to jump into random topics only tangentially connected to transportation before. So fine. But the "trolley question" has impacts that are direct on transportation itself. When we decide to look at transportation infrastructure, we encounter many of the same morally vexing questions. To name a few instances that come immediately to mind:

*Is congestion bad or good? Ronald Reagan's California was the first (I believe, or at least among the first) state governments to decide that congestion was an environmental issue, and regulate transportation accordingly. The basic ideas behind the "level of service" rules that were developed are not controversial. That is to say, even though I'm no fan of Ronald Reagan, there was a basic truth to what the policy stated: our cars operate at peak efficiency around 50-60 mph. So to the extent that we can run our cars amuck at that speed all the time without ever having to stop or slow down--in theory--we'd be doing the best good for the environment in terms of optimizing our transportation per use of fuel. 

The problem with this idea is that there are many dimensions instead of just one or two. So, for instance, spending money to widen roads means not spending money on transit. That's not good for the environment. Spending money to widen roads also impacts how much people choose to drive, both because of land-use patterns that evolve around the new widened roads, and because people simply choose to take more trips with the additional capacity. Having people get to high speeds everywhere all the time--even when it doesn't lead to traffic jams--means making it impossible to walk or bike anywhere. So that's not good. When you look at the many dimensional aspects of this instance of the trolley question, you realize that two dimensions just doesn't go far enough. That's why level of service is gradually being abandoned as a metric. 

*Is running transit to the suburbs always good? This seems like it would be easy to sort out too. Obviously transit is good, right? It seems even more intuitive than the congestion question. 

The problem with this school of thought is that transit operates totally differently depending on land-use, and when you focus a large amount of funds on running what is called "coverage" service to the suburbs, there may be an opportunity cost to services that could carry more riders. Jarrett Walker is a key proponent of careful thinking about this question. The issue, in the end, is not binary. We need some coverage services. We also need services that may not perform well for ridership immediately, but which are meant to help development in such a way as to allow them to perform well in the future. But Walker has done a lot of work to rein in unnecessary "coverage" buses, and gotten better ridership results without more money in cities like Houston. Just like the original trolley question, the benefit is clear. Many people will be better off with few people being worse off. But Walker himself concedes that that does not make the issue easy, or without human suffering.

My Secret Agenda

Here's the real reason I decided to talk about this now. Last night's Democratic debate featured Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. One of many reasons I've been concerned about our use of oil through driving has always been my concerns about U.S. foreign policy, and so it's a natural thing for me to talk about that here. We have a vital electoral chance to change the course of U.S. foreign policy for the better.

The conservative Rhode Island writer C. Andrew Morse wrote that Sanders' foreign policy stances were "loopy". Sanders had brought a number of points that I thought were incredibly important. As he has pointed out in a number of other debates, we have to think "about the day after". What he means is that when we're talking about utilitarian questions in the context of foreign policy, we have to think about not just the immediate goods and evils that seem to be on the table, but also the potential for complexity and blowback if our original intentions don't work. He's made this point most saliently with regard to the Iraq War. Much of what he predicted about the war came true, down to fairly fine details. Yet, despite this, Sanders is frequently assailed by the media as being "unprepared" on foreign policy.

The question Morse raises is whether the horrible consequences of war are outweighed by the horror that was Saddam Hussein. Morse says that in the math, killing Saddam was just better.
As you can gather, the question is fair because our emotional tendency to think of our active actions as different than our passive ones is at least up for fair debate. If we "allow" Saddam to be a dictator, that is in some ways similar or even equal to "causing" Saddam to be a dictator (Oh yeah, we did actually cause that--that wasn't passively "allowed"). With the organ/blood situation, there's a debate opened as to whether we can do simple two dimensional* math can explain our duties clearly. Is it okay to kill in order to save? Maybe we have to also consider a third or fourth dimension. Does killing to save in this instance do more to destabilize the situation around us, undermine our rules of war, and empower other bad people, than not doing anything would have done?

Sanders differs from ordinary politicians in that he raises open questions about the third or fourth dimension of our decision-making. The typical narrative in U.S. politics has been about killing to save, and there are legitimate instances where that might be the scenario. Sanders reminds us that sometimes we killed because we wanted stuff: oil, copper, or fruit. And he reminds us that even when the people we killed were much more clearly murderous or evil, other stability questions were worth asking. He doesn't just say Is it okay to kill to save? He also says, Are there instances when we tried to kill to save, and ended up killing far more people? The points Sanders brings up about Henry Kissinger in Cambodia, and how carpet-bombing that country for perceived utilitarian good in the Cold War ultimately empowered the Khmer Rouge, are worthwhile to think about too (even if one accepts, as some people do, that Communism was a danger worth opposing). Incidentally, concerns about Kissinger have even been raised by Iraq War supporters, like Christopher Hitchens.

The linguist Steven Pinker (whose views on the election I don't know, but who I imagine is not a Bernie supporter) has spoken to the limitations of utilitarian thought in his book The Stuff of Thought. Pinker notes that even though utilitarian thinking has rationality behind it, that it has its limits. Talking about research that studied the emotional aversion that people have to physically causing the harm of other people, even ostensibly for good, Pinker concludes:
A scenario in which the actor is the antagonist and his sacrificial victim (the fat man) is the agonist--the prototypical meaning of causal verbs--evokes an emotion that overwhelms our reckoning of lives saved and lost, whereas an alternative scenario, in which the actor is a mere enabler of an antagonist (the train), does not. 
Does this mean that our force-dynamic mindset [I do, therefore I cause; I allow to do, therefore I do not cause] makes us irrational in the moral arena? Does the eye-catching difference between causing and enabling contaminate our ethics and render our intentions untrustworthy? Not necessarily. We value people not just for what they do but for what they are. And a person who is capable of heaving a struggling man over a bridge or covering the mouth of a baby until it stops breathing is probably capable of other horrific acts that lack a redeeming reduction in the body count. Even putting aside the callousness that would be necessary to carry through these acts, the kind of person who chooses his acts only by their anticipated costs and benefits (reckoned by calculations that he arrogates himself) might skew the sums in his favor whenever the odds and payoffs are uncertain, which in real life they always are. . . [This] has been satirized in a compendium of philosophical humor: "A brain in a vat on Twin Earth is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. On one track is a worker, Jones, who is planning the murder of five men, but one of those men intends to blow up a bridge that will be crossed by a bus filled with thirty orphans. . . "
Pinker's quote brings us back to why in the modern world, we have typically (at least in theory) said that we only go to war for imminent threats to our own country's safety, or against imminent threat of genocide. Saddam Hussein was an evil man, but his days of being an imminent threat were worst when the U.S. was supporting him with weapons in order to play extended-move chess games on some utilitarian chessboard (while also supporting the Iranians to oppose Hussein through the illegal mechanisms of the Iran-Contra Scandal). The questions are numerous: Why was Hussein the worst and most imminent threat at that time? Why couldn't the U.S. wait to work with U.N. inspectors? Why did the U.S. make grabs for Iraq's oil? Why did the U.S. ignore warnings that sectarian violence might kill a lot more people than the background noise of injustice in Iraq was in 2003? When you stop to count the complexities of the issue, it's still true that there might have been some theoretical circumstances when violence for democracy would have made sense. It's just not clear that the Iraq invasion was that circumstance.

And so why should we blame Bernie Sanders for being right about that?

I feel certain that if we need to go to war against an imminent threat, Bernie Sanders can and will lead us. And I feel certain that he'll be surrounded, in any case, by a plethora of officials with deep experience in weaponry and warfare to help him to lead. What I'm looking for in a candidate for president is not a pacifist, but what I am looking for is someone who considers war a deeply harmful last resort. I want a president who does not consider war something to swagger about for political gain in an election. I want a president who knows the evil things we've done, as well as the well-intentioned mistakes we've made--and who also understands the evil things other countries have done, and their well-intentioned mistakes. Bernie Sanders is that person. And so I'm not impressed with the typical expectation that the president where a ridiculous military codpiece and stand in front of a Mission Accomplished banner to remind us of what kind of a man he is. I want someone more serious.

Bernie Sanders is my vote for commander in chief.


*Again, "one dimensional" here meaning "don't kill". "Two dimensional" meaning "kill, but only to save". "Three dimensional" being "kill to save, but perhaps not in some situations". 

1 comment:

  1. I’m an inventor. I have an elevator technology called Teleport Transit, a collection of 100 innovations that can supplant cars in urban areas. You get in at a ground level station, the elevator goes up, goes horizontally while hanging from multiple cables or rails above the street, and finally drops you off at your stop.

    Automobiles kill 40,000 people per year including 10,000 pedestrians. Properly maintained elevators rarely malfunction and there’s little to nothing above the street that a gondola can hit. Also the system uses a factor of ten less solar electricity than autos and freeway traffic jams use. Cables can still fail, big trucks can knock down the support poles and other stuff happens, so that my system might kill 40 to 400 people a year instead of 40,000 people.

    The problem is, when pedestrians are run over the automaker usually can’t be sued. With my system, my company would get sued for all 40 to 400 deaths. Is the invention financially feasible?

    --Paul Klinkman
    a.k.a. anonymous