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Often smuggled into modern introductory courses in normative ethics, the “trolley problem” is an infamous thought experiment that originated in the writings of philosopher Philippa R. Foot. A simple rundown — no pun intended — of the moral dilemma is as follows. Fatefully, you are the driver of a runaway tram that will strike and kill five people unless you redirect it onto another track where it will kill only one workman. Morally speaking, what ought you do?
Another version of the trolley problem takes place in the surgery room. Imagine that you are a doctor who can kill a healthy patient to obtain his body parts and save several other patients from dying. Should you kill the healthy patient or spare him? What is the right answer, if any?
The trolley problem and its variations concern problems of moral justification. What sorts of justificatory moral principles — be they consequentialist or deontological — yield the verdicts that appear to satisfy our moral commitments? How ought we choose among a number of competing moral principles?
In a recent tweet, Michael H. Schur, the creator of the philosophical fantasy-comedy television series “The Good Place,” wrote, “[The global COVID-19 pandemic] is basically the Trolley Problem, and [President Donald J. Trump] is taking the worst possible approach.” The global COVID-19 pandemic can be read as another variation of Foot’s thought experiment. Involving trade-offs and conflicting moral decisions, the current COVID-19 situation reflects a worldwide triage problem on multiple fronts.
In hospitals and care-centers, medical professionals confront hard questions concerning bioethics and distributive justice. Given the shortage of medical resources, what moral principles ought to be used to prioritize prospective patients? One interpretation of act-utilitarianism contends that saving the most number of lives is what makes an action morally right. However, strictly adhering to such a moral framework could leave a large number of patients unjustly precluded from medical care on the basis of arbitrary factors beyond control.
Medical rationing mechanisms in many states almost all lend preferential treatment to otherwise healthy people who are likely to fully recover. On the flip side, older people, individuals with mental and physical disabilities, and victims with chronic medical problems — all of whom are equally deserving of proper medical care — could be denied adequate medical attention. The dilemma grows more thorns when also considering identity markers such as race and socioeconomic status, provided that many low-income people and people of color are unable to afford top-notch treatments on a regular basis to stay in good health.
On the national level, a number of difficult questions concerning lockdown policy are at stake. Over 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, a figure that is predicted to rise as nearly 90 percent of Americans have fallen under the shadow of lockdown orders. Some analysts have encouraged the use of models weighing costs and benefits to the economy and human lives in order to govern policy-making. However, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, to whom Schur replied in his tweet, responded by declaring, “We will not put a dollar figure on human life,” and “we’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable.”
Others claim that the long-term economic shutdown, impoverishment, and despair could be graver than the direct toll of the virus itself. No longer is this a trade-off between lives and money, but a choice between lives and lives. As in the Trolley Problem, there is no simple, uncontroversial answer.
In present circumstances, public officials across the world, especially Trump, must not back away from these difficult moral dilemmas posed by COVID-19. Jumping out of the proverbial trolley and abdicating responsibility is not an option. Those who have the power to decide which lives to save ought to make decisions in good faith, weighing ethical — not merely practical — considerations on both sides and remaining fully cognizant of the morally weighty trade-offs that result from their choices.
Many important moral decisions trickle down to the level of the individual. As trolley operators, we make daily choices on whether to engage in needlessly selfish and morally cruel behavior, such as hoarding vital resources for the purpose of price gouging and profiteering, or to save lives by practicing social distancing and lending a hand of support to those most in need. Trolley operators at all levels should take the helm of the trolley and engage in honest decision-making. As we wash our hands, more than ever, we must not wash away our moral convictions.
To turn or not to turn the trolley, we must now decide.
Woojin Lim ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. Daniel Shin ’22 is a Philosophy and Math concentrator in Quincy House. Their column appears on alternate Fridays.
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