The Inaction Principle

In reading Justice by Michael Sandel, I am reminded of the famous “trolley” question and all derivatives thereof. The question is something that has long plagued me, but I suddenly feel I’ve reached an answer that is at least internally consistent with my code of ethics.

I like thinking about situations in terms of structure. Both the initial trolley example in which the driver may derail the train killing one instead of five as well as the more painful “fat man” example are ultimately a trade off between the death of one and that of five, i.e. they are structurally identical.

However, it is important to stress that the numbers themselves cannot in a philosophically sound answer matter. If they do, we are forced to ask at which point is the uneasy act of pushing the fat man OK. If at a ratio of two to one, it is not, at three, not then when will it ever be ethical? At the judgement of one man versus humanity itself? No.

My answer rests on the assertion that “bad” and “not good” are inherently different, that is the latter is by design better than the former. Further, to develop my argument, I consider the act of killing one or five (in either situation) entirely divorced. That is, while one is physically contingent upon the other, it is not philosophically so.

Key to my argument for the first situation is that the trolley is initially headed towards the five and may be derailed towards the one. If the driver does nothing, the five die. Therefore, they die as a cause of Nature (perverted and unrealistic as it may be) and not at the hand of this poor driver. However, if the driver deliberately switches the track, the one man dies at the driver’s will. Sure, five are saved – a virtue if there ever was one – but one has died.

That is wrong.

The same argument applies to the “fat man” situation.

People may be quick to assassinate this argument as philosophical and entirely unemotional, but this is the very principle that governs much of our Western – affluent – lives. It is not wrong for me to buy a shirt, costing thirty dollars (not absurdly expensive by American standards), right? It is not absurd for me to demand of my parents this beautiful MacBook Pro? It is not absurd for me to go on vacation to Europe costing more in two weeks than most of the poor world earns in a decade.

No, it is not, but only so long as one accepts the argument I have supposed above. It is my free will to consume the money available to me in the way I see fit (or more appropriately, as my parents might – and they have, reluctantly or not, deemed fit all of the above).

The money spent on these endeavors via inaction result in the deaths of many more than five men. Many millions die of malnutrition and starvation every day, or cheaply preventable infections. Though the macroeconomy may not be zero-sum, my parent’s bank account most certainly is. Every dollar we spend on personal luxuries (including the ten-dollar purchase of Dr. Sandel’s book) is at some implicit level coming from the possibility of saving a poor boy.

But then there is a deluge of questions that make this argument, even if right, ultimately unsatisfactory, as I suppose all philosophical questions are. If we “saved” a boy from malnutrition into a life of mere subsistence, is that really a life? Is the life that would be robbed of the five miners, presumably financially and intellectually sound men, of higher station than of an African living in subsistence?

And here, I cop out. It is not for me to say what life is more worth living than the other. Perhaps in that hell of subsistence this boy (or girl) will find some spiritual happiness he would otherwise miss.

Ultimately, letting many die out of inaction is a sad reality of our lives. That is made all the more explicit in this philosophical and unrealistic example provided, but it is not any less different. Therefore, I take exception with the “majority” opinion that even in the first case it is wrong for the man to derail the train.

Is this just? Perhaps not. However, I also take exception with the very concoction of these hypotheticals as moral barometers. By virtue of using a situation that is tethered intimately with reality – otherwise, the situation could have been simply stated as the saving of five dollars at the cost of one, a mere utilitarian calculation – the alchemist of this world is giving in to the human condition.

Further, the assumptions of this hypothetical are too strong to bear any moral bearing whatsoever. To assume a world like this was just born, independent of any preordained actions, is absurd. I could equally ask whether it is right to kill one man to save all of humanity itself. Through the answer I crafted above perhaps one would reply in the negative, which itself highlights the absurdity of this world.

In reality, we need to ask the less-philosophical but ultimately more important question, for what reason are these men “unable” to move. Why are the breaks broken? Etc. These assumptions make this question as unlike the real world as the battle between five dollars and one, and therefore can yield no greater moral or philosophical insight, other than to incite a curiosity and passion in a reader like myself.


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