Sometimes called the Trolley Problem, this thought experiment helps us understand the moral or ethical dilemma decision-makers can face. Reading this may help you make clearer decisions when you vote for a set of policies. As a veteran, maybe you have been confronted with dilemmas. When is it right to fight or fire? What are the consequences of taking action or not taking action? How do you understand a lawful order? Below is a quick 1:38 second video that explains the Trolley Problem. There are many variations but this keeps it simple for now.
The Trolley Problem has many variations and twists. One of the most often cited variations is to change who the one person is that must die to save the others. What if the person that will die is a loved one? What if it is your child? Do you still divert the trolley?
It is also very interesting to notice the differences in attitudes when it comes to throwing a switch versus throwing a person to their death. Psychologically it is more likely people would throw a switch and less likely to throw a person off a bridge. As the video concludes, “maybe they are on to something.”
I believe I have written about my friend’s saying in the past. “Nothing matters until it becomes personal.” That really sticks with me. Maybe it will for you too. You can look at the Trolley Problem from an objective point of view and come to one conclusion. Now, place yourself as the decision-maker with all the variables and you might come to another conclusion.
Most of our daily decisions are not as nerve-racking as the Trolley Problem. This changes when you are a voting member of the population, especially true when voting for someone at the national level. It is at that level things become more consequential because it affects a much larger number of people. National decisions may also affect the entire world if you are a consequential nation.
You likely noticed the term “utilitarian” used in the video. Here is a short definition of utilitarianism.
the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority.
the doctrine that an action is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.
That sounds good, right? Not so fast. Utilitarianism has some flaws. Let’s engage in another thought experiment. Below is an excerpt from Psychology Today. Note: This was an article posted in 2015. It is a bit eerie that it sounds so relatable to current events.
A standard objection to utilitarianism is that it could require us to violate the standards of justice. For example, imagine that you are a judge in a small town. Someone has committed a crime, and there has been some social unrest resulting in injuries, violent conflict, and some rioting. As the judge, you know that if you sentence an innocent man to death, the town will be calmed and peace restored. If you set him free, even more unrest will erupt, with more harm coming to the town and its people. Utilitarianism seems to require punishing the innocent in certain circumstances, such as these.
How we balance justice with utilitarian views is how we best determine political policy. Thinking about the policy you are voting for rather than the person may help you clarify your choice. Having a clear understanding of your own approach to policies may also help you communicate your reasoning with others. Nearly every one of us has some influence on family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and so on. Individuals make up our collective national policies through elected representatives. You and what you think is very important. That is why I encourage education in this area. Everyone matters. United we stand and divided we fall.
Do you see how you can apply this to policies on taxes, immigration, trade, healthcare, national defense, laws, censorship, abortion, and so on? Is it worth thinking about?