The problem with the Trolley problem is the Trolley problem, ie the fact that it exists, just like a theoretical Body Disposal Problem which makes you choose between cremation or burial, isn’t really asking which is better, it is making the point that it is a problem you’ve let it get to a stage where you have a Body Disposal Problem.
Utilitarianism may turn out to be ‘right’, whatever that means, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a lazy default philosophy that will arise as the moral system of any sentient species fashioned by natural selection. It is the gene-equivalent of moral philosophy: the one that favors more over the few has more chances of surviving to a stage where it is the dominant philosophy. It is also self-reinforcing, the more individuals who subscribe to it, the more they gain from it being true, and more the gains from conversion of non-subscribers.
Trolley Problem Of Original Sin: Most people are utilitarians, and find the trolley problem very simple. 1 dead < 5 dead. The more squeamish will balk at the revised version of the problem where you have to actively throw a fat guy off a bridge to divert the trolley and save 5, proving their utilitarianism is not only selfish and lazy but also hypocritical. Fortunately, math is not utilitarian. And unlike what the utilitarians think, (1<5), math is not on their side, at least it shouldn’t be because that’s how we get the subprime crisis. I have a $100 expense coming up I have no way of paying. I go to a moneylender A who has exactly $100 and take out a loan. There are 4 other people who have also gone to this lender and taken out a $100 loan each. $100 has now been converted into $500 of loans. This is not good. It gets worse, because that moneylender had taken his original $100 out as a loan from another moneylender B who’d also given out 4 other $100 loans from an initial equity of $100. We think sacrificing 1 life has magically multiplied into 5 lives, when instead each individual alive has gained a liability in the form of 1 life traded in (the scapegoat) for 1 life (his own), giving society an overall liability of 5 lives. On the balance sheet: Debit 1 life. Credit 5 lives. This grows exponentially until Debit 1 vs Credit 1000000. If someone realizes that debit 1 doesn’t exist, the whole housing market comes crashing down.
Utilitarian Jesus: Here’s a trolley problem. 4 others and I are tied up on the railway track. The trolley hurtles towards us, and it’s a fate we’d rather avoid because then we have to get on it and go to our offices for another full week of work. We are given the choice to make 1 victim take our place, but obviously he doesn’t want to do it. We’ll have to make him. This makes us understandably queasy. So we pick the worst human possible, a rapist paedophile who deserves to die. Still, none of us wants to be the one to have blood on our hands. So we construct an elaborate weighted device. A pan rests on a pulley system such that when it is weighted down, it will pull the lever and divert the trolley towards the rapist and save us. We each have a little pebble and on the count of 3, will throw our little pebbles onto the pan. Each pebble individually cannot weigh down the pan, but all of ours together will. Just as we’re about to do it, goddamned Jesus says stop. He doesn’t want us to have blood on our hands, because he’s Jesus and he’s cool like that. Neither does he want the rapist to die, so he says he’ll take one for the team. He’ll lie down on the track, and pull the lever himself, and take the trolley along with him to heaven, leaving everyone alive on earth to not worry about trolley problems ever again.
We have 3 options.
1) We say woah this is Jesus. Nobody wants to be the person responsible for Jesus dying. So we do the math. 5 of us lowlives < 1 Jesus. So the good utilitarians that we are, we just let the trolley come to us, pick us up, and drop us off at the financial district. We’re a little annoyed the rapist paedophile got away scott-free and forgotten, but Jesus comforts us and says he’s got big redemptive plans for him, to get him to open some sort of Church or something.
2) With tears in our eyes, we let the trolley hit Jesus. In that instant we realize there is no justification for utilitarianism, that barbaric relic of mother nature desperately clawing at little bubbles of order in a chaotic universe. The morality of sentient creatures cannot be the same as the deterministic paths of inorganic matter. Lives cannot be traded against another, because the only person who had the authority to arbitrate in such a trade, just died on the track. Now everybody has the same level of authority, and can only be treated as individuals with individual agency. Utilitarianism has no jurisdiction in this county. I can choose to sacrifice my life for 2 brothers and 8 cousins, but the only thing that is moral about that scenario is the fact that it is my choice. Everything else is merely physical consequence and removed from the domain of moral judgment.
3) Utilitarianist Satan: F*** that, too much work. Instead, we do the math, differently this time. Jesus isn’t a $100 IOU, he’s Jeff Bezos’ bank account, and there are more zeroes than stars in the all the glorious heavens above our flat earth. So he hasn’t just underwritten us a personal $100 loan, he’s underwritten every single loan to every single human for all time. That means I can now underwrite $500 of loans on my $100 loan and if anyone comes to collect, I can just point to the signature at the bottom and tell them to take it to Jesus. For this to be a viable system, we need to make sure a) everyone knows he’s worth an infinite amount of money, and b) he died validating the system. He’s already done part A all by his ownsies. So now part B, where the system is one such that we, the many, can choose to trade off our lives against the lives of a single victim in a way that we all partake of the guilt. Would you please lie down on the track that we may tie you up Jesus. No guys I’m fine with this really I want to do it, you don’t have to tie me up. Poor Jesus, he’s gone delirious and mad from all his divinity, ok everyone on the count of 3, hurl those pebbles into the pan. The transaction has been completed, and sanctified. It is now legal tender for all time.
The entire history of mankind is Option 3. Option 1 doesn’t exist because in the example, everybody is tied up on the tracks, society as a whole, and if they choose death there’s no more society to reform itself.
Option 2 is the one we needed. We witnessed the unveiling of utilitarianism by a transcendent entity with the sole authority to arbitrate the trade-offs between lives that we had institutionalized and codified as revelatory wisdom from that very same entity, either as sacred religion or secular law.
In Girardian thought, this is the equivalent of violence in society, that eventually builds up till it demands release, through the violence inflicted on a commonly agreed scapegoat victim. Once this sacrifice has been made, a calm spreads among the mob, placated, a bubble of order bought at the expense of a single inconsequential victim. The order created, and the chaos averted, is far far higher than the disorder created by the murder (extinguishing the order of a single organism). In a ravenously entropic universe, any system that is able to siphon off order from chaos reliably enough to guarantee its survival, will survive to be the one that automatically gains primacy as philosophy that is universal and therefore moral.
This seems to me no more defensible than your garden variety Indian politician shrugging off gangrape as ‘boys will be boys.. wut u goan do’. Someone should tell them wut. Control. Not by an external authority, a state, a king, or a god. But by the self. Individual liberty brings with it the responsibility of individual control. Why should we take for granted that pressure will invariably build up in society until some restricted bloodletting is the utilitarian solution? The moral issue to be inspected in the Trolley problem isn’t the hierarchy of choices placed on a scale of morality, it’s the hierarchy of choices that led to the problem. Clearly, there was a time when 5 people weren’t tied up on the tracks. Something happened, or failed to happen, between that time and 5 people suddenly being on the tracks. Utilitarianism is a cop-out in this instance, shifting the focus of morality onto larger-sounding questions like the sanctity of a human life, and away from the horror of the situation. True morality means to look upon Jesus as he is crushed by the train, awash in his guts and glory, and forever traumatized by the reality of such a death that can result from a series of bad decisions, intellectual or moral, that led from me living a happy life with friends and family to one where I’m tied up on the track listening to the hellish death knell blaring of Kenny G from the PA system of an oncoming trolley.
Once they are on the track, it is no longer a question of morality, it’s a question of economics, individuals making utility-maximizing decisions free of any kind of coercion. If 5 people among them cannot find a price that a scapegoat is willing to accept, then they die. The morality gets shifted onto the modality used to convince the scapegoat to make the trade, and not whether the trade should itself exist. It’s immoral to have pre-kidnapped 10 different children and then waiting to find yourself on the tracks so you can get their parents to take your place or else the kids die of starvation. The conditions of the trade are immoral, not the concept of the trade.