Today I’m going to do something a little different. It might seem like an odd digression into philosophy and ethics, but it comes back around to politics. In fact, it explains my core political orientation about as well as anything can.I’m going to explain why I hate the Trolley Problem.
Deeply meaningful post, Dave...
I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to live in a society where all people are lifted up. Just imagine...
I’m not normally a podcast person, but the amount of written content I consume on a daily basis has begun to compete with my dirty dishes. I appreciated and enjoyed the podcast immensely! If it’s not too much of a burden, please keep them going. Thanks!
This post alone made the sub worth it.
Tired: Trolley Problem Memes
Wired: New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens
Hi David. Just so you know, this article and podcast experiment converted me to a paid subscriber. It’s great—please keep going! Thank you and happy new year!
PS: I really enjoyed your October Vox article about geothermal. One thing that would be great to hear in the future is what, if any, real possibilities exist for the oil and gas sector to pivot to geothermal. Some industry overlap is alluded to in the article, but would anything substantial be possible? Is it a full on pipe dream for some community out there currently built around natural gas extraction to repurpose their wells toward heat extraction and electricity generation and keep the town economically functioning in the process?
This is a nice distillation of my own discomfort with these sorts of abstract philosophical conundrums. Thanks for also giving me a way to express my own principles more clearly, and for the links!
Thanks for writing this illuminating piece and a huge thanks for linking to the Sapolski interview on Ezra Klein's podcast. I can never get enough Sapolski. The man is a gem!
Post better than podcast. For me, at least.
Sometimes I think that the world we have constructed over the past few decades has seen a bumper crop of those who are ill-equipped to make a thoughtful moral decision either because their lives are too chaotic or because their economic self-interest is bound up in maintaining the status quo. When I try to parse the millions that voted for Trump I see one cohort who are bound by tribe and another by the fear of losing their retirement savings to ambitious proposals. I worry about just how many people can afford the luxury of making the right moral choice given that it seems to be shrinking demo. I worry about a lot of things but mostly I worry that too many people making too much money spells doom for the planet. Their moral probity has been bought off.
Thanks, Dave, for inviting me to think deeply about why I too have been a life-long progressive.
I much prefer to read things than listen to them. But that's just me and judging by the overall popularity of podcasts I think I am in the minority. But that's just restating the trolley problem.
Did you get as far as feminist ethics in your graduate studies? Because this is pretty much exactly the feminist critique of abstract moral reasoning. I would think the gender-related aspects of the argument would appeal to you: the idea is that the privileging of abstraction over concrete concerns and universalism over relations of care are reflections of typically "male" modes of thinking, which of course have been dominant in philosophy since at least Plato. And you seem to be arguing for a version of virtue ethics, which most feminist ethicists would agree with. Nel Noddings' 'Caring,' for one, offers care for others as both the basis of moral concern and a normative value which we ought to aspire to filfill. Simone de Beauvoir's 'Ethics of Ambiguity' is sort of avant la lettre with respect to feminist ethics, but she recognizes that moral decision-making always takes place in a terrain of uncertainty, where compromising our absolute values is a necessity for contending with the world's limitations, yet where the imperative remains to attempt to fulfill them as far as possible.
Your reference to embodied and embedded experience also sounds like you have some passing familiarity with phenomenological thinking. That's another branch of philosophical thought that would generally reject the universalisms and abstractions of utilitarianism and deontology in favor of a rich understanding of situated experience. Analytic philosophy is mostly for the birds, but there are lots of philosophers out there who share all of your critiques, and are working to move the field in that direction!
I arrive late to this conversation. I've listened twice to David's oral rendition and read the text as well. I think this is an excellent contribution to The Great Conversation About Right & Wrong (see http://aboutrightandwrong.org/), to which I plan to insert a link on my website.
All social systems (groups, teams, organizations, states, etc.) develop their own norms, some of which crystalize into rules, including oral or written laws. Rules are encapsulated judgments. They reduce the need for System II (analytic) thinking, which is costly and should be done only when necessary. Virtues are a form of norm that covers many behavioral settings. Aristotle wrote about virtues and discussed a few in the Nicomachean Ethics.
Much of Anglo-American philosophy appears to have been captured by a group of self-important, upper-class snobs enamored with their own brilliance. (Tellingly, they did not need to work for a living.) Apart from developing the concept of speech acts, this group has produced little of practical value.
The Trolley Problem describes a tragedy, not a question of moral principles. David cuts through the Gordion Knot developed by armchair moralists and points to the need to grow people capable of acting wisely and humanely given the morally ambiguous--tragic--world we live in. For that, I recommend reading the Stoics and acquiring good moral habits. To the best of your ability, become a Mensch.
To say that moral problems cannot be resolved with a system of principles or an ultimate authority (I agree) is not to say that there are not morally fraught general problems that we need to address with rules--rules that we can revise with more knowledge, experience, and wisdom. (To name just one, we need to solve the diffusion of responsibility problem that arises from the use of organizations to provide goods and services. It leads to parentless debacles such as the Financial Crisis of 2008.)
I applaud David for this essay.
I've decided to give up isms and focus on solving practical problems. More or less what David is recommending here. His description of how to create S2 thinkers brings to mind the Scandinavian countries. The book Viking Economics describes ordinary Norwegians thinking intelligently about the problems their country faces. With all the social protections David recommends, they do a remarkably good job coming up with practical solutions. Of course, of all the many problems we face, climate change and sustainability are paramount. If we don't solve those problems we cease to exist. Nonetheless, as the Green New Dealers insist, we must have a just transition. That will require that along with the super-rapid transition to clean emission-free energy, we're going to have to take on many of what I call the "for-all problems," the ones that David refers to in his discussion of how to create competent moral agents. Health care, education, housing, jobs, etc. I am struck by how those of us who are deeply concerned about climate have similar views on how we should evolve our society. Thanks David.
I’m late to this, but I’d be interested to hear why you went into analytic vs continental philosophy. Good stuff!
It hasn't been 10 days but I been thinking about this post David. I been thinking about it for it is a perfect illustration in short words, only 6 pages long, demonstrating a problem and coming out with a more holistic and what I think is a "healthier" answer. It is a wonderful work of persuasion I can share with others.
First time reader! Doug Muder, of the excellent Weekly Sift blog recommended this post and I can see why! Your breakdown of the trolley problem seems wonderfully and appropriately Humanist. We upright apes have shown a pretty good knack for discovering and improving ways to solve problems over our millennia of kicking about this orb. Too often the Trolley Problem is deployed in a Nihilist fashion, presented as a damned if you do/don't dilemma. It's a pessimistic approach to human endeavor that Gen X has specialized in, much to our regret ;)