Lesser of Two Evils?

When you study ethics or moral philosophy in the typical US or UK philosophy department, one of the first things you learn about is the so-called “trolley problem.” See the image [check Facebook link below].

In the top scenario, you have your hands on a lever that can alter the tracks and set the trolley in one of two directions. One person versus five people. There’s no time to save them. You can only move the lever and send the speeding trolley toward the one person or the five. You have to decide if one person will die or five people.

The bottom scenario is a little different. You are standing on a bridge and there is a “fat man” on the edge looking out to the poor souls tied to the track. If you push the fat man onto the track, that will kill the fat man but it will stop the trolley and save the five people. Again, you face a decision. Save five people at the cost of killing one?

In the top scenario, most people asked what they would do choose to divert the train to the one person in order to save five. That’s straightforward consequentialist/utilitarian thinking. One death is better than five.

The point of the bottom scenario is that it should give you pause. In terms of overall utility, the outcome is the same as the top scenario. But would you really push an innocent, unsuspecting bystander onto the track? What this example should get you to think is that there is more to moral reasoning and moral decision making than a cold calculation of overall utility, i.e., overall benefit vs. harm. For some people, it would be unacceptable to push someone onto the tracks even if that meant five people will be saved. They don’t want to make that decision, so they opt out. In some scenarios, that can be a morally acceptable thing to do.

Similarly in the case of elections. Two options — both look really bad (as per usual, amirite?). Opting out of the whole process should be a morally acceptable option. Perhaps it is even the superior option. Even if it is clear that one candidate will be less of an evil and will bring about fewer evil consequences, what about the human component and what it means for me and my conscience to have to select evil? To plug myself into that selection process?

I’m not trying to discourage people from going to the polls (not really encouraging it either), but keep in mind that there is more to the story than just a calculation of which candidate is the lesser of two evils.