The year 2020, by its midpoint, has exposed its major theme of presenting two trolley problems that engages the participation of the entire population. A trolley problem is a moral analogy of facing two choices: not doing anything will result in the certain death of one group of people, but the only second choice available that would save those people would lead to the certain death of a different group of people. The two groups are not identical in composition in terms of the decision-maker’s preferences. The question is what is the most moral choice: do nothing, or do something.
Most people never have to deal with large scale trolley problem choices, and even the few who do will only have to do it once or twice in their lifetimes. It is our hope that those in that position would have some training to approach the problem as rationally and dispassionately as possible. I expect many people hope that someone else better qualified will be in that position. Not only is the decision difficult, but the decision maker will be criticized no matter what choice they make.
In this year, we face these problems as a population because the government decision makers are relying on the cooperation of the population just like the operator is relying on the cooperation of the trolley’s tracks.
In earlier post, I described the first trolley problem as the choice we faced with a new form of virus never before seen in population probably because it was engineered in a lab to be especially harmful to human populations. Because of the novelty of the virus, any death attributable to the virus will be a death that would otherwise not have occurred if the virus never was introduced. This presents the default do-nothing option of the trolley problem. Doing nothing will result in the deaths of many vulnerable people.
Certainly, the option to do nothing new was an option. We always deal with disease outbreaks even with pandemic proportions with examples such as various influenza strains, tuberculosis, AIDs, etc. In each of these historic cases, we accepted the fatality consequences of following standard policies that attempt to best manage the situation to minimize the impact. We had the same option with this new disease.
The difference this time was the designation of novelty on this disease. The other diseases have been around for a long time and thus their impact is already factored into our policies and our expectations. Those preexisting diseases once had a period when they too were new to society, diseases like AIDS for example, but they were new in a different era with a far less efficient interpersonal communication system. When those old diseases were new, the population readily accepted the sufficiency of the government’s measured response to the disease. That response was to focus on treating the infected, protecting the vulnerable, and informing the rest of the population.
This new disease arrived at a different time of social networking. We are able to communicate among each other over large scales. Such a capability never existed before. In addition, we have been conditioned through the past 20 years or more to thinking that high among government’s responsibilities is to prevent our dying from avoidable death. Because the virus is new, the government’s highest priority was to act in ways to eradicate the virus from the population by preventing its spread until a vaccine is available.
The default choice in this trolley problem, to respond identically as we regularly do with things like influenza, was almost universally rejected as immoral. We had to take drastic actions to change the tracks to send this trolley down a different path. Specifically, to protect the living standards of the vulnerable elderly under some level of medical supervision, we needed to impose severe restrictions on living standards on the younger less vulnerable population. Those restrictions had their own implications including likely higher death tolls due to future deprivation from lost economic and personal development opportunities.
I believe that the trolley choice presented two options with fatality numbers differing by at least a factor of 10. We preferred taking action over taking no action. Taking no action put at risk a number of people’s lives from a novel form of dying. Taking the chosen action put at risk a far larger number of people’s lives, and even a much larger quantity of years of life due to the younger population affected.
As far as I can tell, it does not appear that decision makers even calculated the impact of the second trolley choice, but this indicts them of incompetence that we expected from the track operators. The other option is that they did make this calculation to conclude that it ten times worse to lose a life (or perhaps one hundred times worse to lose of year of life) to a novel form of death than to a form of death (from deprivation) that we are already accustomed to. This second option indicates ineptitude.
There is a trolley problem choice in that either option will result in deaths. The qualitative difference in the choices here are easily quantified in terms of numbers of lives or life-years. I would have hoped that decision makers would have chosen the option with the lowest quantity of bad outcomes. That option was to do nothing special.
The counter argument is that the deaths to the virus are more immediate. The deadly consequences to the younger generation are more postponed in time and presumably we would have time in the future to mitigate those impacts. I don’t agree. The chosen policies inevitably demand younger people to sacrifice their opportunities that are most optimally exercised at their current age. They can not recover those lost opportunities in the future because they will no longer be at the age to take advantage of them.
The trolley choice:
- Do nothing and lose a number of mostly elderly people who have already lived their better yeas of life.
- Do something and lose a much larger number among the younger generation either through compromised life opportunities or through deaths from depression or deprivation of a damaged economy.
The world (for the most part) chose the second option and this exposed something seriously wrong with the world. History has many examples of similar choices where a healthier world chose a complete opposite calculus, preferring to suffer through even higher death tolls in order to protect the future of the younger generation. One example is the US revolutionary war being fought despite a very devastating smallpox epidemic.
By analogy, we are now experiencing a devolutionary war to mitigate a far less devastating virus.
This analogy describes the second trolley problem of 2020. This is the widespread protests and rioting that started with looting and arson of many retail businesses, but escalated to demands to eliminate police departments and to destroy monuments commemorating our history.
This trolley problem is the problem of frequent examples of losing a life during the application of force by police to arrest a person resisting arrest. There is an inevitable risk of any use of force to arrest any individual that resists. We largely accept this as a part of policing. Part of this acceptance is the acknowledgement that police are humans and they have varying levels of discipline and of emotional state at any particular time. There will be times when the situation is unacceptable and demanding disciplinary actions. As long as we require police to apprehend those who justifiably should be arrested, there will be some risk that this will end badly. This will include aggravating conditions such as bias (real or apparent).
Like with the first trolley problem, we largely jumped to the conclusion that we must take action instead of taking no action. Taking no action would mean we will continue to see occasions like the one the sparked the current situation. The chosen action is to reduce the jurisdiction of police to make arrests, and limit their abilities and immunities for applying force when faced with resistance. This sends the trolley down a second track that leaves a large population at risk of criminal activities and violence with no option of effective police response.
Once again, in same year, we were impelled to take action instead of taking no action. Also, the available action risked a larger population than what was as risk by doing nothing. Similar in both cases is the acceptance that the outcomes are things that are nothing new to human experience. In the case of the pandemic, humanity is no stranger to economic ruination or famine. Similarly in the case of police reform, humanity is no stranger to the anarchy of unchecked criminality and terror at a community level.
In both cases, we are making a choice with worse outcomes. The reason for this irrational choice is that we live in a culture that demands action and refuses to accept inaction. In the trolley problem, the inaction is an active choice and can be the rational or moral choice. We live in a culture that denies the existence of the trolley problem at all. Taking no action can only be incompetence, dereliction of duty, or evil. There is an obligation to take action to any problem and that action can only be a deliberate change of policy. Doing nothing is not a choice.
Coincidentally, the year 2020 is a major election year for the US. The two topics above have escalated the stakes in the coming election in terms of the direction we want the future government to follow. This stark choice was already present before the start of 2020 with the choice of the current president but these recent events have raised the stakes considerably. Unfortunately, the ballot choices do not capture the gap the choices we are facing. We have a two party system where both parties largely overlap within an Overton window that is narrower than the choices the population is facing.
This election may be similar to the trolley problem in that we prefer to make drastic changes rather than to do nothing and keep things as they are. I don’t expect much a change in the culture in the few remaining months so we will probably reject the idea of keeping things the same as being incompetent. The obligation to change outweighs any obligation to make a rational choice about outcomes.
The above two scenarios of the pandemic and public unrest illustrates a different kind of choice we can be making in this election season. That choice is whether the trolley problem is a legitimate dilemma for government to consider. Can government ever be permitted to rationally choose to do nothing as a preferable solution over making drastic action? Must government always act drastically to any new crisis?
If we do allow governments to make the choice of doing nothing as long as it is justified, then how should government justify its choice?
Summarizing the above observations, we appear to be demanding the government justify its choices based on alleviating the immediate crisis. In both cases, we are obligating the government to preserve the lives of everyone, but in a way that prioritizes the older lives over the younger ones. The pandemic response obligates sacrifices of younger generation’s opportunities to preserve the lives of elders who have very little opportunities to achieve any future goals. The riot response similarly sacrifices the younger generation access to police security to preserve the lives of older men who are past their opportunities for future achievements.
It appears that the current consensus is that the role of government is to preserve the present lives, especially older lives. It is presented as the only moral choice. After all, it would be immoral to allow lives to be lost. Government must always take positive action if that action is needed to preserve a life, especially if the risk is immediate and toward a more mature life.
The consensus ignores the implicit trolley problem. There always remains the option to do nothing. In the context of most of our history, the preferred approach is to guide government in a way that most benefits the next generation. Our history started with a rebellion that explicitly chose to sacrifice its more mature population’s lifestyles in order to secure a more promising future for their offspring. I recognize that that rebellion involved a minority of the overall population and there were plenty of objectors, but this sentiment became the lesson of the revolution that guided the country toward its later greatness.
This is the year, perhaps unlike any in the past century, where we must make a choice about what kind of government we want to have. Unfortunately, we are not given the full choice. Despite the two party choices, both represent the same side of the choice we need to make. Given the current options, will choose to continue to govern ourselves to prioritize the preservation of mature lives over the opportunities and securities for the younger generation.
It is disappointing that it is this younger generation, the one being asked to sacrifice their future, that is most supportive of the choice of a government obligated to preserve lives and with increasing priority for more mature ages. The government they want is a government that expects that their generation will gladly suffer the consequences.
This makes some sense in terms that this election is more democratic than previous elections. We want policy to be driven by majority popular vote (or opinion poll). That popularity contest will always be biased toward preserving the present, toward immediate gratification, instead of investing for the future. Even the youngest generations will prefer an immediate reward to an opportunity for a future and much greater reward.
Popularity contest of democratic votes will always prefer to postpone immediate death even at the cost of much larger death counts in the future. Democracies get away with that because when that future arrives, they will face the same choice and make the same decision, sacrificing even greater future casualties to save a few it can save at the time.
Missing from this calculation is that the population inevitably ages. Eventually, we need to rely on the capabilities and resources of the younger generation. The better government option is to prioritize the opportunities for developing the younger generation, providing them with the best resources to work from, and eliminating as much burden as possible. Doing so will benefit the entire population, including the elders.
The better approach to government is to expect sacrifices from the older generations for the benefit of the younger and future generations through providing the best development opportunities and the best economy to live within. The current trend of our democracy is heading in the opposite direct in spite the voting power of that younger generation. It is the younger generation that is pushing us in that opposite direction.
Our current focus is almost exclusively on immediate outcomes instead of future opportunities. I imagine many do expect that the future will not disappoint in continuation of those outcomes, but many others also accept a bleaker future is acceptable for an immediate pay off. That bleaker future is acceptable, democratically, because it is inevitable that the entire population will share in that bleakness.
It is preferable to have a future of near universal poverty, than to have a present with disparities in outcome.
Democratic government (a government led by majority opinion polls or elections) can result in a situation that demands redistribution of outcomes in the present. I think this is where we are heading in the current times, and perhaps inevitably due to the insistence for change, for rejection of how we normally do things.
When the year is done, the result is what democracy looks like. I fully agree with that conclusion. Democracy will look the way it will look, but the appearance will rapidly deteriorate.
It is possible for a government to avoid that deterioration. Such a government is one that prioritizes the future opportunities and securities of its younger and youngest generations. That government requires sacrifices of the older and oldest generations.
The fundamental reason for government is to govern the current population. It is there to resolve differences within the population, to provide justice, and to maintain peace and welfare of the population. The opposite of government is anarchy that likely will result in a population demanding some kind of government to replace it.
Some governments do in fact limit themselves to this narrow present day focus, but the that ones that last longest and thrive the most go beyond this kind of present-population governance and instead attempt to prepare for a better future. Although we describe our government as a democracy or a democratic republic, I think we are about to see that euphemism become reality. True democracies can not plan for future prosperity.
Until recently, the US government was something different from a democracy or even of a basic government. The elected representatives and the unelected bureaucrats planned for future opportunities though often with conflicting goals.
Things began change during a period that coincided with my own lifetime that started with an exuberant optimism of starting space travel and building large projects that came with great risks to their current workers. Over time that kind of optimism and planning for the future became replaced with a priority to maximize the comforts, maintaining the illusions, and guaranteeing the health and life of the present increasingly aging population.
This transformation has become more democratic, the government is more responsive to the popular demands for immediate comfort. But this implies that it transformed from something that was less democratic, something that oversaw (if not directed) the greatest improvement in the human condition history has ever recorded.
Government is about the present, and we’re improving our government to maximize its attention on the present. Preparing for the future requires something other than government. Failing to prepare for the future will result in more impoverished conditions that will continue to be optimally managed by having nearly everyone having the same outcomes.