The despicable Trolley Problem has popped up again in odd corners of the internet, if, indeed, it ever goes away. It is despicable because it aims at a particular set of conclusions while posing as an open-ended thought experiment. Such a nested set of unlikelihoods has no more bearing on reality than a hypothetical that began: suppose I could flap my arms and fly to the moon. All sorts of interesting things might fall out of ruminating on such a supposition. Only problem is, I can’t flap my arms and fly to the moon. The trolley problem is just such a hypothetical, dressed up to seem less fantastic and so seduce the unsophisticated.
Let’s rephrase and generalize a little: Suppose a sadistic. all-knowing, all-powerful psychopath makes every attempt to put you in a position whereby any choice, including the choice not to chose, has horrible results. Now, take this situation as foundational and extrapolate to an entire internally consistent morality from it. What you have is exactly what a Marxist or Pragmatist (insofar as they are morally distinct) would consider moral: that you figure out whatever you think is the best end, and do whatever you think might result in that end, tough luck about the means. In its milder forms, you decide that lying is not intrinsically evil, since you may need to lie to protect a basement full of Jews from the National Socialists. Therefore, every time a situation arises where telling the truth might be awkward or telling a lie might be advantageous, you’ve set the stage for one of those ‘high and lonely destiny’ moments in which you excuse yourself for being a deceitful, lying bastard.
In its more robust manifestations, you think only of your end – a Worker’s Paradise, or getting the Right People into power, or defusing the Ticking Time Bomb, and you lie and cheat your a** off to make it happen – and call it heroism. Even to the point where the acts of a Walter Duranty and waterboarders seem understandable and even tragically sympathetic, vaguely heroic, even.
(Aside: I’ve heard stories – grain of salt alert! – about how the kids at Alinsky’s meetings would sometimes challenge him when he promoted all manner of dishonesty and deceit in the name getting things done, and that he would say that allegiance to the truth was a weakness that made you a tool of the enemy, and you needed to be strong enough to do what needed to be done to achieve the ends. I’ve wondered if there was ever a kids together enough to ask him when he was going to stop lying to them, as it was clear from his own statements that he was just saying to them whatever it took to achieve his ends. And, bigger picture, when the Revolution was over, when would those in charge start telling the truth? In other words, when, if ever, can the people expect to be anything other than means to an end? And why should we trust your answer in any event?)
Years ago, my late son Andrew, when I sketched this ‘dilemma’ out to him once (when it had its ugly head raised by a deadly earnest New York Times essayist) simply said: ‘I’d set the lever in the middle to try to derail the trolley and yell at the people on the tracks like crazy.” In other words, violate the premises – do not accept the increasingly insane restrictions and conditions set by the ‘thought experiment’. If I can magically KNOW that the trolley cannot be derailed, then how come I can’t magically fly at the speed of light, board the trolley and put on the brakes?
The overriding aspect of fantasy in this setup is that I can be certain about some things that in reality rarely if ever admit of much certainty at all, while arbitrarily uncertain about others. This weird certainty is a defining characteristic of modern ‘thought’, and challenging is is typically the point at which the name calling and character assassination begins. Marxists are stone certain that the Worker’s Paradise will magically arise once all the capitalists have been murdered and all property abolished. They KNOW this with every fiber of their beings. Those of us entertaining doubts simple have false consciousness, or are bad actors. Or we’re sexually repressed. Or racists. Or whatever insult is stickiest at the moment.