Is the “Trump Train” Really Like a Trolley?

I have, shamelessly self-promoted, and now back to our regularly scheduled politics post.

I made a comment over at Ace’s place, as well as one here noting that the Trump v. Hillary situation is basically a real life version of the “Trolley Problem” So now let’s put my “bastard subfield of philosophy” training to use and explain what I mean.

Briefly stated, the trolley problem goes like this: Imagine you’re standing next to a track switch, and you see a trolley barreling down the tracks. You can’t stop it. If you do nothing it will kill 5 people, but you can pull the lever and it will switch tracks killing only one. What do you do?

Now there are several variations of the trolley problem, including one where you have to push a fat man onto the tracks, or where the one person is a friend or spouse. Indeed one of the common critiques of the problem is that it’s vagueness leads to radically different answers when you start adding context. Nevertheless it makes for an interesting framework for which to consider this election season.

Now, a few quick assumptions:

  1. Hillary will be worse than Trump. If you think that isn’t true, than just reverse the names in everything that follows.
  2. Your vote matters. This is debatable, Ilya Somin has pointed out in a (now impossible to link due to their move to WaPo) article that your chances of being the deciding vote are almost nil. Still, I’m going to apply a bit of Kantian magic here to say that we should act as though our vote does matter, because if everyone acted as if it didn’t the result would be…well what we have now, which obviously sucks.
  3. Your third party vote doesn’t count. The lever has only two positions. (However, we’ll add some context later to address this)
  4. “I choose not to choose” is in fact a choice. (But like #2 we’ll deal with that in a second.)

Having laid those ground rules out, it’s apparent how this is like a the Trolley Problem. Even commenters are making that point. Look here’s Ace basically saying “Trump will be better than Hillary.” The formulation here is basically the Trolley Problem: pull the switch to kill the 1 over the 5. Elect the possible disaster Trump over the definite disaster Hillary. To my assumption #3, choosing not to choose (i.e. sitting out the election) leaves the metaphorical “lever” set wherever it’s default was. (Current polls suggest it’s barely on “Hillary” right now.) As a 3rd party has basically 0 chance to win, voting for that represents little more than a protest vote and leaves the lever at “default” making that decision morally equal to not choosing in this formulation.

So, given that setup, do you have a moral obligation to “pull the lever” (look double meaning!) and move the trolley to the “Trump Track” as it were? Or, stated differently, do you have a moral duty to minimize the harm?

In the vague case the answer can very a bit. In a pure utilitarian sense, it’s a pretty clear “yes.” Things get a little more dicey as you get into different ethical theories. Choosing to do nothing condemns 5 people to death, which may be more moral burden than some can handle. That seems to be the basic argument behind the current incarnation of #neverHillary, that sitting out effectively chooses to elect Hillary and/or kill 5 people. (In Hillary’s case, that number is probably off by a few orders of magnitude. I’ve read a few interesting papers over whether the rule of double effect would allow you to throw the switch in Catholic morality (arguing that the good of saving the 5 does not come via the death of 1, but rather via the switch throwing.) At the very least I think there’s an argument in favor of “yes” in this case. Debatable still, but at least open.

But the Trump case is a bit different, in that we didn’t just suddenly appear in this scenario. There is considerably more context in how we arrived here. To strain the metaphor to it’s breaking point, I have been arguing repeatedly that we never should have put the trolley on these tracks in the first place. I have already done my moral duty, the results are on the hands of the people who put everything in motion.

In this formulation there’s a considerably better argument that I’m free to simply walk away, or (in the election case) protest vote. My conscience is clear of the negative outcomes because I already tried to stop them before we arrived here. The moral paralysis brought out by the “lesser of two evils” problems starts to disappear.

I suspect this is why a contingent of the #NeverTrump movement persists and won’t fall in line. They feel they did everything to stop the scenario from setting up in the first place, and are perfectly happy walking away from the switch lever with a clear conscience.

Author’s note: I started this post before the mess in San Jose. It doesn’t connect to this so I’ll likely save that for some other time.

3 comments to “Is the “Trump Train” Really Like a Trolley?”
  1. The debate over Trump involves a few moving parts, at least in my view:

    1 – Trump as the only choice in the general election over Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders

    2 – Trump’s political record, and the rationalizations/excuse-making by his hardcore supporters

    3 – Demanding that Trump start talking like Reagan and following the Reagan model instead of the Herbert Hoover/Senator John Iselin* model

    Every time I bring up points 2 and 3, I get attacked and dismissed. I don’t appreciate it and it ignores a major concern if he does some of the things he’s yammering on about (tariffs, isolationism, etc.); it will be perhaps as disastrous as a Clinton presidency.

    The argument of “he’s better than the Democrat” or “the lesser of two evils” or “we have to just get him elected” doesn’t cut ice with me anymore. We’ve seen this show before with Dole, Dubya, McCain and Romney and we all swore “never again.” Did we mean it or not?

    Trump is the nominee. So now what? The world wonders.

    *see the original “The Manchurian Candidate”

    • JJ Sefton made a lot of good points.

      This bothers me, too:

      “Every time I bring up points 2 and 3, I get attacked and dismissed. I don’t appreciate it and it ignores a major concern if he does some of the things he’s yammering on about…”

      The shift from a competitive primary to the “Shut up and endorse the nominee” mode was far too abrupt. Unnecessarily so given that it began before Trump had clinched. It is all very reminiscent of Mittbots circa 2012, except at least he had been thoroughly vetted and was known to be competent.

      Trump is a short jump from King George III territory, but these folks are willfully blind to it. They’ll vote for King Penguin and we should too.

      I’ve given up on trying to persuade anyone. The only question for me now is what I should do if Trump looks like he could win. I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it.

      PS: Are you on Twitter, JJ?

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