America’s Trolley Problem

There’s a famous “what if?” used in classes teaching ethics: it’s called the Trolley Problem, and it poses a terrible dilemma. A trolley is bearing down on a group of five people, who are (unaccountably) unaware of its path. You are standing near a switch that can divert it–but if you do, it will kill a single person who would then be in its path.

What do you do? Do you resist taking an action that would make you, in effect, the person who murders that single unfortunate (and presumably innocent) bystander? Or do you shrug and let the trolley kill the five (presumably equally innocent) original targets, excusing your non-interference with the fact that your actions were not responsible for their demise? (Accidents happen…)

There’s no comforting solution to that dilemma, just as there is no “perfect” answer to most of the questions we wrestle with almost daily on this site and elsewhere.

I am one of the many former Republicans who is horrified by what that party has become, and I have been adamant about the importance of voting Blue in November. That advice has been criticized–on this site and elsewhere–by those who find both parties unworthy of their support. Democrats are far from perfect, they point out, so–as  advocates of moral purity–they refuse to draw any distinction between a fascist cult and an admittedly flawed political party.

Talk about making the perfect the enemy of the good!

May I suggest that the Jews living in Nazi Germany would have been grateful for a corrupt or inept or otherwise “imperfect” alternative to Hitler? (I don’t think that example is as far-fetched as it would have been in times past.)

We American voters are standing at that switch. We are watching the trolley come down the track.

Not unlike certain commenters to this blog, some number of progressive American voters entertain a firm belief in their own superior moral purity. Those voters exhibit disdain for the very idea of casting a vote in support of a political party that doesn’t meet their rigid and impossibly high ethical standards. They harp on the multiple failings of the political party that is–at this moment in history–the clearly preferable alternative.

That posture is particularly appealing to  American voters who are White, male and middle-class, and thus unlikely to be an early target of the Christian Nationalist cult that has taken over the once-respectable GOP.

The rest of us–women, people of color, non-Christians, immigrants, and others who don’t meet the Christian Nationalist definition of “real American”–are more likely to agree with President Biden about what is at stake this November.

Americans unwilling to make the perfect the enemy of the good will go to the polls and vote Blue No Matter Who because we care about reproductive choice, about protecting every citizen’s right to vote, about public education, about the economic well-being of working class Americans, about sensible gun laws, about genuine religious liberty (as opposed to the privileging of Christian religious doctrine), and about limiting the authority of government over our most intimate decisions.

Those of us who understand the choice before us aren’t blind– we understand that we won’t all agree about the policies that will be necessary or desirable to achieve our goals, or even, in some cases, the goals themselves. We are perfectly well aware that the Democratic Party includes plenty of lawmakers with whom we disagree, and some number whose behaviors are suspect and/or whose motives are impure.

It doesn’t matter.We can address those deficiencies once we save America’s admittedly imperfect democracy. Because–hysterical and overblown as it sounds–that actually is what is at stake. Moral purity from either the Right or Left is a pose and a fiction. Making the perfect (however one defines it) the enemy of the good is a cop-out–a defense for doing nothing.

November is America’s Trolley Problem.

No one wants to throw the switch that kills the single human on the alternate track, but refusing to do so will doom five equally innocent beings. The people refusing  to throw the ballot-box switch may not have been responsible for the trolley’s original path, but that fact doesn’t excuse their “pox on both your houses” refusal to distinguish between levels of harm.

Or perhaps, like the “Good Germans, they simply refuse to see the trolley…


  1. My brother FP, white farmer, owns large acerage, has very little if any debt, conservative continues to call me afraid because I STILL wear a mask.
    After the loss of Roe I told him that he as a white male with land will never, ever lose his right to VOTE. He as usual just backed away from me.
    He had covid, possibly caught from a local very busy restaurant and took it north to Indy to his diabetic wife. Both ended up in ICU for a few days. They are still dealing with effects 6 weeks later but basically on the mend.
    After FP called me afraid, I suggested that maybe he could help me reduce the spread of covid and wear a mask also.
    Again he just backed away from his crazy delusional sister.
    Wear a mask
    Help me here

  2. I no longer live in the US, but I will go to the embassy and vote Democrat as long as it is possible. Will my vote make a difference? I don’t know, but not voting sure as hell will.

  3. The simple answer is “both and”. I must vote for the Democrats – No Question! At the same time – I will choose – to put my money and my Primary Efforts – on working towards Systemic Change. I will criticize Much about the Democratic Party, but – Not Voting and being “Apathetic” is Not an Option. The Democrats – will continue to shoot themselves in the Foot – until – their Monied Interests and Ineptness – have serious competition from some of us who are both Not (or Less) Corrupt and Not (or less) Inept.

  4. America doesn’t have A trolley problem. America isn’t a democracy, and your concern for the citizens is too late. It ran over them decades ago.

    You are a reactionary, acting out of fear of something that doesn’t even exist. It’s an illusion created by the media and think tanks our oligarchy owns.

    Many women, people of color, immigrants, and non-Christians have been duped into voting for Republicans themselves. But unfortunately, they will double down on their idiocy again because they firmly believe in one of the two lies.

    Others will react out of their fears to support the other lie thinking they are saving our democracy which doesn’t exist.

    Your hypothetical ethical question is inappropriate. It’s more about a question of logic or the insanity of the jaywalker who repeatedly walks in front of traffic, getting injured every time.

    Why would he/she/it voluntarily walk in front of traffic again, knowing they have been hit by the traffic a dozen times before?

    What drives the insanity? 😉

  5. Geraldine,

    Because if they are unaware of the oncoming trolley, shouting at them will just make them mad at YOU.

    Great essay. It’s what is often called critical thinking, but at a higher level. Making ALL decisions requires critical thinking at the INDIVIDUAL level. If one is too intellectually lazy to do that kind of thinking, they WILL do the “pox on both houses” cop-out and rail against those who DO the work at actually making carefully-crafted decisions.

    Then, you can lead a horse to water…. Those who are too lazy to think will not drink.

  6. Switch the Trolley in the direction of the 1, leaving the 5 who can possibly benefit society more than 1. We are trapped in a numbers game now with the slim Democratic majority; I spent a good deal of time yesterday AGAIN trying to get two of my friends, married lesbians who are both health care workers, to register and VOTE BLUE NO MATTER WHO. They are some of Trump’s Republican primary targets and have much to lose. Followed by a visit from my great-granddaughter, 23, who is registered but never voted, she put together the few facts she knew with others I gave her and said she will vote this November. Convincing all of them that the presidential election is secondary at this time; we must save states and the slim majority in the Senate and House and will decide the presidency before 2024 candidates are known.

    “The best way out is always through.” Robert Frost

    We must plow through not only Trump’s Republicans but those who do not understand that we are close to losing the United States of America as a democracy, with all its warts. Our “Trolley Problem” today is War in our streets vs. Peace in our nation. For those who are seeking perfection (their version); they will never find it in the political world or their religion any more than they will find perfection within themselves. I offer a huge mea culpa on that one; stopping myself long enough to seek the reason for my anger at the opposition and why my belief in people or issues is so strong. I can only look through the weeds in my grassroots level of this country and this world and I doubt I can change anyone but myself…and not always sure about that.

  7. Vern; a friend gave me an apron years ago with the logo, “You can lead a Horticulture but you can’t make her think,” Apt slogan regarding members of both parties today.

  8. Dissenters here make the case much stronger.

    I appreciate the contrast; the others all the more.

  9. It is a “hold your nose and vote Blue” situation. The best option between two poor options is to vote for the D’s, and hold them accountable. The second best option, at least for my R friends, is to stay home and not vote, and let the “Blue Wave” wash the MAGA stain off the map.

    Nice article Professor. Thanks.

  10. Todd and the ex-patriot kinda missed the point. They are the trolley and don’t care who they hit or run over. THAT is what I meant by intellectually laziness.

    Set the hook, Sheila.

  11. At the risk of being repetitive (I plead guilty, several times over), the future of our democracy this fall will be in the hands of two groups, neither of whom care much about “parties”, those who believe politics is all corruption so why dirty my hands and those who are too busy “partying” themselves – literally, perhaps, entertaining themselves to death.

  12. Sadly, Vern, you are falling for the trap of being intellectually lazy. The rhetorical trolley already mulled over the crowd a long time ago.

    Einstein pointed it out, and George Carlin joked about it, and here you are still taking the bait on a daily basis. LOL

  13. Great post, but respectfully, I must disagree on two points –
    1) any “pox on both your houses”/”I insist upon the impossible perfect rather than the possible flawed good” should not be labeled with “progressive” – that is akin to the old “a liberal is a socialist is a communist is an ungodly evil person” conflation. You are describing Radical thinking, not Progressive.
    2) I don’t see the trolley analogy – it is kill five people versus tripping the one so he gets off the track – on one side is the destruction of the American way of government and replacing it with autocracy; on the other side might be some policies you don’t like, but that can be changed in the future – for those who open their eyes to what you have been saying on this blog for a while now, the choice isn’t even close – autocracy vs a few bad policies that still can be reversed because democracy has been preserved.

  14. Lester, do you really believe “the future of our democracy will be decided in November?”

    Don’t you think the trajectory of “our democracy” was decided long before 2022? Hell, even Ike spoke about it in his farewell speech. JFK anybody? MLK?

    For those who’ve fallen for their ego-centric traps, you may want to research the Julian Assange case dating back to 2010 and follow it through to today.

    Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rappatouer on Torture, wrote a book about Julian’s case which would bring you up to date. Another book is being translated from Italian to English with additional content added. It should be due out by this Christmas. Stefani Maurizi is a journalist who worked with Wikileaks and is one of the leading journalists in Europe.

    Not the trash we get in this country.

  15. Those advocates of moral purity are responsible for sticking us with Trump because they refused to vote for Hillary. It was abundantly clear that we would lose Roe if Trump came into office, and here we are. They refused to take responsibility and now they are hell bent on doing the same thing all over again and tanking our democracy. They should turn the moral purity mirror on themselves because they are no better than our friendly neighborhood anarchist Steve Bannon.

  16. Todd:
    How can you believe the sources you cite? What makes you think they aren’t part of the oligarchy/political conspiracy you mention daily? How can you trust anything?

  17. Sheila, so well put!!
    This reminds me of Ms. “Anybody but Hillary” of 6 years ago!
    Assuming that Vernon is right, and we were hit by the trolley years ago, I still choose to
    vote blue, and at the least, hold out hope for some return to rationality. I will venture that
    this might depend on DT’s being indicted and convicted for at least one of his egregious
    acts, thus, hopefully, stripping the veil from the eyes of his believers, showing him to have
    those ordinary feet of clay
    DR. Bandy Lee has explained that the followers of gang leaders and of cult leaders often
    “return to their senses” once said leader has been shown to be not invulnerable.
    Absent this, and call me Pollyanna if you like, given what Pres.Biden has been able to
    accomplish in the last few months, I still hold out hope for a government that can see its
    responsibility as one to nurture its constituents, rather than to enrich its “elite.” This can not
    happen with Republicans, probably of any sort, holding power in congress.

  18. Vern makes a good point. Todd redefines Sheila’s one or five assumption dilemma to conform to his oligarchic bias but when he does his conclusions fall on dry ground.

    Speaking of definitions, My old World Politics professor correctly refused to denominate us humans as homo sapiens, insisting instead that we be called “homo saps.” He was right, and that redefinition fits all of us, black and white, rich and poor, Maga and liberal, Democrat and Republican.

    Perfection is an idea and a goal we homo saps cannot attain, so what to do? Admit our imperfections and do our best to reach such an impossible summit of ethics and morality in both our personal and public lives. Reaching such a goal is impossible but persevering in trying to reach it is not. We homo saps are all in this together whether we like it or not, so let’s act like it.

  19. Good question, Daleb.

    Einstein scientifically and spiritually spelled out our problem very succinctly in 1949.

    Noam Chomsky did so in the 80s and continues to do so.

    Princeton University’s study in 2014 also concluded that we are an oligarchy. Our political system and media are both controlled by this oligarchy.

    Academics and journalists alike have reached the same conclusion.

    Anyone clamoring about Trump being an imminent threat to the illusionary democracy is delusional or acting out. Most of the political class is acting out because they are sycophants of the oligarchy. They’ve sold out their morals for position or profit. Those that believe in their cause (mostly the right) are dupes.

    The issue for the masses are these critical thinkers are screened by the Technocrats in Silicon VALLEY.

    You should do a little research about Julian Assange’s first meeting with Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. Shortly after Julian disclosed his thoughts about Google, he was pursued by the US government.

  20. “Clang clang clang went the trolley.” So we are dealing with six hard of hearing people, or is it just Todd? Unfortunately, we are all too much the same ilk, so we can’t make any predictions on election outcomes based on commenter’s votes. If I’m certain of anything, it is that Todd will follow his muse and if the Dems lose by one, I’ll be really pissed off at him, but then I’ll start all over raising my voice against tyranny. When they come for me, hopefully you and Todd will all be there to speak out.

  21. There are many forces at work trying to impose cultures on Americans that benefit a few but impose on the freedoms of many, as well as the general functioning of American society. President Biden was spot on in his Philadelphia speech identifying Maga Republicans as one such force and even the one most risky to the continuation of the lives we have lived here. He was clear that not all Republicans are MAGA Republicans which was not news to anyone living here. Neither are all Democrats extreme progressives. In fact, everyone in any group is not the same. Diversity defines the human race.

    However, that declaration revealed a fundamental political trap that the GOP fell into due to the absolutely dysfunctional system we still employ in the country for campaign financing. The Party was prevented from being honest about the January 6th insurrection and its causes and consequences because of the campaign funds Donald Trump had locked up. So campaign funding is another dysfunctional force that needs to be reckoned with.

    The questions that we all have opinions on boil down to the sum of the forces threatening democracy versus our ability and more importantly our will to fight them. We are fundamentally at a crossroads like President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine faced going on a year ago. Could he muster forces strong enough to avoid the destruction of the culture that he accepted the responsibility for as President? He placed his bet, we each must place ours, then we must act accordingly. History will eventually know which of us were right and prevailed.

  22. Pete – kudos on your strong post. Unfortunately, we have no Zelenskyy in sight. The DEMs have done nothing to build/support a younger generation of inspiring leadership with a national following. Contrast this the GOP (whatever you may think of these folks and their work) – DeSantis, Abbott, Tim Scott, Rick Scott, Youngkin, etc.

    The devil on my shoulder also whispers…”so what if they did…remember ‘Hope’ and Obama and what people think he accomplished besides his presence and elegant words.”

  23. Todd, just to everyone a favor and go away. The rest of us are obviously way too intellectually inferior and morally bankrupt to understand your message.

  24. Todd: If your analysis is accurate and we are controlled by an oligarchy, then what is the answer, assuming their is one?

  25. Todd’s case reminds me of the Ralph Nader claim that there was no difference between supporting Bush or Gore, so he ran for president and swung the election to Bush. It was a bogus claim with serious consequences then, and Todd’s argument is equally bogus and irresponsible.

  26. Professor: Allowing political parties a role in allocating public campaign funding is part of a very good way to drive big money out of American politics. There is no perfect way.

  27. Tom Strong – Huh? Please elaborate. Party money is not “big money”? Party money is not often “dark money”? Party money is not likely to be “pay to play”?

  28. The only way extremists get the message is to experience overwhelming defeat. Such defeats send a powerful message to all political parties that extremism is a losing strategy and distances them from the purveyors of extreme rhetoric and activities. It WORKS. So let’s use our votes to put extremism back in a box where it belongs.

  29. I am a Republican who has conservative opinions on most issues. Up until recently, I simply voted for the candidate who most closely reflects my views. But now as a voter I’m faced with threshold issues on which both parties used to agree. We have MAGA Republicans (brilliant labeling by Biden, by the way) who don’t believe in democracy, the rule of law, the Constitution and who won’t respect the results of election results they don’t like.

    For me, a candidate needs to support democracy, the rule of law, the Constitution and respect election results for me to even get consider those other issues. That’s why I now find myself voting for Democratic candidates rather than their MAGA Republican opponents.

    I think it’s a mistake when people who make the Democrats are pro-democracy while MAGA Republicans support autocracy argument and then veer into ditch discussing other issues. There are pro-life, pro-religious rights Republicans who are completely opposed to the MAGA Republicans who worship autocrats like Viktor Orban.

  30. I do agree with Todd that we live in an oligarchy. But There is a difference between an oligarchic democrracy and a fascist oligarchy. The Oligarchic democracy is controlled more or less subtely by manipulations of various forms and types, and to succeed in their control their are limits to their actions. And through those limits much progress over the last 246 has been made. A facist oiigarchy can and will control by direct force and by removing all semblance of a free press, or a free social media. And as a trans woman with a non-binary adult offspring, and many LGBT, POC, and women friends, I will take the oligarchic Democracy thank you. Todd is what Eric Hoffer called a True Believer.

  31. You throw the switch, WE the People and what we stand for, out weighs the right of one individual.
    The sacrifice of one young soldier for the safety of our nation and for the majority of their fellow Americans happens because the idea of America and what it stands for is more important that their freedoms, prosperity and good life they forfeited their life for others to enjoy theirs. When that is lost so is America as we know it.
    This I Believe:

  32. The question for you Americans is whether you believe in democracy or not. If you do (and I hope you do), then you _must_ vote, and that vote must be for the Democratic candidate.

    The Republicans are no longer a political party in any traditional sense. They do not believe in the democratic process. They actively subvert it. So, they _must_ be opposed. Adam Kinzinger (future Democrat, I suspect, though I’m not sure he’d ever out himself as such) is right in this.

    If one honestly believes in democracy, then one must oppose gerrymandering, vote suppression, the filibuster, etc. These are not just problems for a democracy, they are actively anti-democratic.

  33. Anne, I was with you until the comment about our free press. Once again, research the Julian Assange case and what he was saying until the US silenced him, spied on him, and threatened to assassinate him. Why would Pompeo, head of the CIA, want to assassinate a journalist?

    Secondly, why are all media entities in this country collectively silent about his treatment?

    There are still a handful of journalists around the world that aren’t silent.

    You can even check out Roger Waters from Pink Floyd. He schooled his CNN interviewer on the Minsk Agreement so CNN edited the interview.

    We can’t be lazy and expect spoon feeding droplets from our oligarchic-media on the TV. 😉

  34. The choice is clear. With all their flaws, if the Democrats remain in power we at least have a chance to fix things. The Republicans, in contrast, are just waiting for their “ach tung!” moment, where they proceed to undo every reform and advance of the last hundred years. They don’t want to merely turn back the clock–they want to rip it off the wall and smash it into a million pieces. I wouldn’t put it past them to reinstate child labor. (“Here’s a shovel, Johnny, start digging!”) Tossing one’s head in contempt and saying neither party meets your lily-white standards is not an option in these times. If the Rs, in their current composition, get in, we may never get the chance to vote them out again. A candidate with whom I agree maybe fifty or sixty percent of the time is far better than one who would undo everything in which I believe. I cannot improve upon the phrase “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the possible”–that says it better than anything else I can think of.

  35. Once again I have to agree with my friend Paul.
    The primary question for Republicans is autocracy vs. democracy.

    The questions of abortion, voting rights, and such are DIFFERENT issues that will attract Independents and some Republicans to the coalition, but the PRIMARY issue for non-MAGA Republicans is “Do you want democracy or autocracy?” That argument will win the important staunch conservative Republicans who still believe in democracy and the rule of law. We need them to help destroy the MAGA takeover of the GOP. Then we can return to robust discussions of policy, like a democratic republic should.

  36. Great analogy, Sheila. Critical thinking has been turned into an art. I don’t see it happening much anymore.

  37. Clang the trolley bell. If know one reacts. Throw the switch. The President and others have already clanged the bell. The current GOP has become a fascist leaning threat. A foreign power could devise no more certain scheme to destroy our freedom than the extremist wing of GOP.

  38. JoAnn, I agree! Ormond wins the day and with so few words. Thanks, Ormond! The smug elitist is really on a tear today, isn’t he? Borrrring!

  39. Very late but I just found this on my computer – I knew I saved it for a reason

    They have such refined and delicate pallets
    That they can discover no one worthy of their ballots
    And then when someone terrible gets elected
    They say: “There, that’s just what I expected.”
    Ogden Nash

  40. My senior year, high school English teacher, Thomas Thornburg, was largely responsible for my ability to write good papers in college. He had a list of blistering criticisms which would show up on our papers. One was “glittering generality.” I saw a lot of glittering generalities in some of the comments today. Using these is “lazy” as Vernons comment suggests because it is a flimsy substitute for the harder work of developing a logical argument. The virtue of a logical argument was on full display in Shielas piece today.

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