There’s a thing called the Trolley Problem which OH was going on about this morning; it relates to trolley buses rather than shopping trolleys and the problem is this. You’re in a trolley bus (well let’s call it a runaway train as that’s easier to relate to.) The brakes aren’t working so you can’t stop it or slow it down but you can change the points. On the track straight ahead of you are five people, but if you change the points you can avoid them. Problem is, on the other track is one person. What do you do?
I have several issues with this. Firstly, people are not an abstract countable noun; you don’t weigh them against each other like bags of sugar. Are these people male or female? Are they young or old? Are they children or adults? I submit that your response would likely be dictated by at least one of these factors and if the group of five straight ahead of you were all children and the one person on the other track was an old person, you’d change the points; anything to avoid killing children. Mind you, that only works in the West: in China, for example, the most important citizens are the elderly, so they would presumably do the reverse. And what if one of them were disabled? What if you were a Man U supporter and they were wearing a United scarf? What if they were Muslim and you were Islamophobic? What if you were a Democrat and they were wearing a MAGA hat?
I further submit (I’ve been watching a legal drama) I further submit, m’lud, that in real life as opposed to the glass bead game of this thought experiment, other factors might well come into play. There might be a freak event such as a power cut; or something entirely unexpected might occur to cause you to act one way or another. One of the people on the line might do something. In fact they probably would do something, wouldn’t they? Faced with an oncoming train, they wouldn’t just stand there, would they? They’d try to run, or cry out – wouldn’t that affect your decision?
The trouble with these thought experiments is that they’re entirely abstract, and since it’s considered unethical to put the experiment into practice we can never find out what people would do.
But perhaps I’m missing the point here which is probably to ask, in theory, how do we react when faced with these two options: taking an action which will result in someone’s death OR doing nothing and end up killing five people? The theory is that most people would do nothing because then they wouldn’t feel responsible. They wouldn’t have chosen to kill the one person, it would be the train – or the train of events – which killed the five.
Of course in reality neither outcome would be the fault of the ‘driver’, just as killing someone who jumps in front of a train is not the driver’s fault. But as I know from a friend who used to counsel train drivers after these events, they very much do feel responsible.
There’s another factor here too, and that is what you might call the freeze frame. Faced with the two options of fight or flight but powerless to do either, the third option is to freeze. Every woman who’s ever been threatened knows what this is like. Some children know it too; and faced with the trolley problem most of us would freeze too, because to act means to cause harm. This may also explain why spectators often don’t intervene in a fight; because flight would be cowardly but they can’t see a way to ‘fight’ without causing more harm.