in Philosophy

Anti-trolley libertarianism?

This argument against the trolley problem (via) is amusing and makes some interesting points. I don’t totally buy the case that the trolley problem is useless (much less actively harmful), since I think that there are probably some important moral issues related to the action vs inaction distinction that the problem brings up, and that these are probably important for some of the society-level policy-related issues that the authors would prefer we all focus on.

The most amusing bit is a link to a comic making fun of the absurd variations on the trolley problem. Here’s one of the more interesting parts:

By thinking seriously about the trolley problem, i.e. considering what the scenario being described actually involves, we can see why it’s so limited as a moral thought experiment. It’s not just that, as the additional conditions grow, there are not any obvious right answers. It’s that every single answer is horrific, and wild examples like this take us so far afield from ordinary moral choices that they’re close to nonsensical.

I’m not completely convinced by the stretch that follows this, in which the authors argues that pondering these kinds of questions makes us more callous. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But I do think it’s worth pointing out that many, perhaps most, moral questions involve, on the one hand, uncertainty, and, on the other, both costs and benefits. Uncertainty is relevant because of risk aversion. Costs and benefits are relevant because of asymmetries in approach-avoidance conflicts (e.g., loss aversion). Moral questions involving choices of certain awfulness are inherently limited.

There are some other interesting bits, but the thing that really stood out to me was this, which reads like an argument for pretty hard core libertarianism (bolded emphasis mine):

The “who should have power over lives” question is often completely left out of philosophy lessons, which simply grant you the ability to take others’ lives and then instruct you to weigh them in accordance with your instincts as to who should live or die…. But what about situations where people are making high-level life-or-death decisions from a distance, and thus have the leisure to weigh the value of certain lives against the value of certain other lives? Perhaps the closest real-life parallels to the trolley problem are war-rooms, and areas of policy-making where “cost-benefit” calculuses are performed on lives. But in those situations, what we should often really be asking is “why does that person have that amount of power over others, and should they ever?” (answer: almost certainly not), rather than “given that X is in charge of all human life, whom should X choose to spare?” One of the writers of this article vividly recalls a creepy thought experiment they had to do at a law school orientation, based on the hypothetical that a fatal epidemic was ravaging the human population. The students in the room were required to choose three fictional people out of a possible ten to receive a newly-developed vaccine…. The groups were given biographies of the ten patients: some of them had unusual talents, some of them had dependents, some of them were children, and so on. Unsurprisingly, the exercise immediately descended into eugenics territory, as the participants, feeling that they had to make some kind of argument, began debating the worthiness of each patient and weighing their respective social utilities against each other. (It only occurred to one of the groups to simply draw lots, which would clearly have been the only remotely fair course of action in real life.) This is a pretty good demonstration of why no individual person, or small group of elites, should actually have decision-making authority in extreme situations like this: all examinations of who “deserves” to live rapidly become unsettling, as the decision-maker’s subjective judgments about the value of other people’s lives are given a false veneer of legitimacy through a dispassionate listing of supposedly-objective “criteria.”

Later in the essay, they ask:

Is being rich in a time of poverty justifiable? … Does capitalism unfairly exploit workers?

To which they answer “No” and “Yes,” so it’s clear that they’re not really making a case for libertarianism. Plus, the “about” page for Current Affairs has this unattributed quote placed fairly prominently:

“The Wall Street Journal of surrealistic left-wing policy journals.”

Then again, just below this, it has two more unattributed quotes:

“If Christopher Hitchens and Willy Wonka had edited a magazine together, it might have resembled Current Affairs.”

“The only sensible anarchist thinking coming out of contemporary print media.”

So maybe this apparent inconsistency is just wacky anarchism? Anyway, the whole essay is worth a read.