The trolley problem.
It’s a thought experiment there’s a trolley coming down the tracks and just ahead, tied to the tracks there are five people. They can’t escape, can’t move, all they can do is watch the trolley on its way to kill them. Just before though there’s a fork in the tracks, and a switch to control it. In this thought experiment you’re at the switch, you can control which way the trolley goes. But on this other set of tracks there’s another person, just one this side, who is also tied down and helpless and who, if you do nothing, is not in any danger.
At face value, there’s no dilemma here. You pull the switch, you save five lives, you kill the one. And its a bummer for the one, but the five obviously outweighed him.
Doesn’t seem… complicated.
A bit further down the track, there’s a single young boy tied to the rails. On the other side, across the fork, there are five old men tied down in the same way, each in their 90s at least. One of them, you know, he looks asleep, but he could be dead already.
Well looking at it this young kid might have more years left than the rest of these guys combined, I’m technically saving more years of life by directing the train to kill the old men. Right? Probably.
The train continues and just ahead there’s a beautiful woman tied to the tracks, she’s gorgeous and young and struggling, she wants to live. Across from her there are five hopeless, virgin men.
Not much to look at these guys. Some of them on the heavier side, faces marked with acne and years of neglected hygiene. Holes in their shirts and jeans. Broke too, while they’re struggling one of them drops his wallet and it falls open its empty, just an EBT card in there.
Some of them barely even trying to escape, they seen the train coming and look relieved even. Not all of them- some of them don’t know, you know, what the rest of their lives are going to be like, and they’re fighting, pulling at the ropes.
Unless you intervene the train is going to plow over this beautiful young girl and kill her You can save her; you just have to kill five crusty dudes who would never have a chance with her.
This time… you don’t look, you’re starting not to like all this power, and after that it just gets weird.
Two white guys and one black woman. Oh cmon!
Two obese women and one athletic dude.
A ten year old with a book… a five year old, but he has an ipad.
Six trans women you have never met, and your actual mother in law.
A little ways down this track and suddenly you realize that if you don’t touch the switch whoever the trolley kills isn’t ‘technically’ your fault. That not saving someone isn’t the same as killing them. And that there’s a space inside you, to let someone die, if they were already gonna die, if the choice is… too complicated for you.
Eventually you find that there are patterns even to this, that certain people, when they come up, they just make every scenario complicated. I mean… less of that am I right? This job is hard enough already.
You begin to miss the forks where it was all bloodthirsty Nazis on one side and beautiful innocent children on the other. Those were the days am I right? You’re not equipped for this intersectionality bullshit. Why can’t it be simple again?
I mean… I guess it could. You just… kill everyone else.
Everyone but perfect innocent children and healthy, hard-working adults, points if you’re attractive… and a few nazis. Or whoever, your menace of choice.
The trolley problem is fun, especially in this room because none of us are switch operators. And most of us, never will be. We’re just Jills and Joes. In fact, if you go far enough down the track, you know, if things get bad enough: there you’ll find us, tied up, across from the people we compete with.
So here’s the trouble, you don’t want the same people at the switch for too long, you become calloused to it, you forget what its like to be on the tracks.
But it is equally true, that a lot of these forks are created, because the people on the tracks don’t understand what it’s like to be a switch operator. We’re down here inventing conflicts and drawing lines between people who are not that different.
Why do we do that?
I used to hate the switch operators. When I was young I thought it was plausible that the world was run by a secret cabal of global elites, organized players, and a big plan. I’m older now I’ve been watching, carefully. And honestly its too weird now. Tell you the truth it doesn’t really look like its organized that well. Right? What are they doing just starting some fires and putting some out sometimes both in the same day. Is this perpetual slow motion train wreck the grand design of some political masterminds?
Maybe, but I doubt it. If you suspend your enchantment and take an honest look I think you’ll find that these people are just people. And most of them are just as dumb as us. And they’re as dumb as us, because they are us. What else can they be? They’re just people.
That’s the scary thing is that we’re all the same, the people on the tracks, the people at the switch, the people with the power and the people without we’re not that different we don’t like hard choices and we’re all selfish, to different degrees maybe but as a society we all decide don’t we, with our money, with our votes, with our voices: where the forks are.
The cabal is us.
Thats my hot take. And I know, it makes everything so much more complicated and that isn’t fun. Its more responsibility, the trolley is still coming, and you still don’t get the switch. I know. Just keep it mind, make fewer forks between you and your fellow people. If you do that, everyone has a smaller chance of getting hit.