The Trolley Problem and COVID-19

What do we do when we face the trolley problem in real-time, due to COVID-19?

by Purujith Gautam

A trolley is hurtling towards five people, and you are near a lever that allows you to divert the trolley and save those five people. The only catch is that by diverting the trolley, you kill the one person that happens to be on the diverted path. Put simply, do you kill one to save five?

The trolley problem is one of the most well-known philosophical thought-experiments. It is firmly in the pop-philosophy realm shared by concepts such as the Grandfather Paradox and Schrodinger’s cat and it is debated ad nauseum everywhere from a freshman year dorm room to popular TV-shows. The trolley problem is famous for a good reason too, it is deeply thought-provoking, carries profound implications for ethics and morality, and quite frankly, is devilishly entertaining. 

As with most thought-experiments, a long tête-à-tête with a friend about the trolley problem utilitarianism and deontological ethics is both free and without ramifications to either the friend, or you. It’s just that – a “thought” experiment. However, what do we do when we face the trolley problem, but in real-time and with catastrophic ramifications based on our choices?

COVID-19 has created a type of trolley problem for governments around the world.  A highly contagious pandemic is ripping through their population, and they are faced with the seemingly quixotic task of balancing skyrocketing pandemic deaths with a simultaneously free falling economy attributed to the lockdowns imposed to curtail that death toll. 

So, what do governments do? Do they continue strict lockdown measures that will save an immense amount of lives knowing that it will affect an incalculable number of livelihoods? Or do they let the trolley continue down the tracks with the hope that the livelihoods saved through continued business will be worth the anguish of a devastating public health crisis?  

The utilitarian perspective would be to pull the lever and save those from the ravages of the pandemic for the greater good, knowing full well the catastrophic implications of prematurely opening and letting the virus run riot. Incidentally, even the deontologists do not have a strong argument to prioritize the economy over virus-deaths. How moral is a government’s intent to not pull the lever knowing that they possess tools to mitigate the impact on livelihoods? By doing nothing, not only will they cripple public health systems, but they will suffer immense pandemic-related deaths that will have a natural knock-on effect on the economy anyway, rendering any moral intent behind doing nothing, null and void. 

That being said, my country, India, is facing a devastating migrant labor crisis. The lockdown disrupted migrants’ means of living, and a lack of adequate assistance has pushed them to embark on dangerous journeys back to their villages, often on foot. It is truly heart-wrenching to see communities pushed to despair by the fight against the virus. However, the willingness of civilians to comply with lockdowns also highlights a positive quality that underscores human psyche. It’s a willingness to make a sacrifice for the “greater” good. It’s akin to the person on the diverted trolley track telling you to pull the lever. It’s a certain human “oneness” that transcends selfishness, and it would do governments good to recognize and compensate the sacrifices of the people on the diverted track, and it would do us good to channel that oneness in other aspects of our life.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 dilemma highlights the sheer difficulty and complexity of crisis-time morality in public policy. Unfortunately, 21st century public policy is politicized.  The pulling of the metaphorical lever is often attached to a political party and ideology, instead of a detached moral decision. If the government enforces a lockdown, then the opposition blindly denounces it, and the government supporters blindly endorse it. We are so deep in our respective political camps, that we forget the ethical burden of the impossible dilemma that faces those on the frontlines of this pandemic. 

We have to be aware in our armchair critiques and praises that the choice faced by governments every day is far from easy. Experts will offer their informed opinion, but ultimately the lever is pulled by the government which carries the ethical burden’s brunt. Now, I’m not calling for a reduction in governmental critique or in informed policy discussion that challenges a government’s decisions…these are hallmarks of an informed civil society. I just believe that we must do so with empathy, acknowledgement of privilege and gratitude that realizes the sheer unfathomable scale of the crisis.

Understandably, an ideal answer to a COVID-19 dilemma goes far out of the scope of the original thought experiment. The answer should be: implement better signage to ensure people don’t end up on the trolley tracks, ensure people read and believe said signage (I’m looking at your anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers), understand that institutionally the people on the tracks are often from poor, marginalized and Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour communities, provide the families of those on the diverted tracks with adequate compensation, and ultimately build a better trolley infrastructure to ensure no more runaway trolleys hurtle towards unsuspecting civilians. Perhaps, I’m getting a little lost in the trolley metaphor…. but essentially, we need a robust public health infrastructure that anticipates crises, and focuses on scientific, evidence-based solutions, to fight them. Additionally, we need a governance system that provides adequate crisis-time compensation to those communities most devastated by a crisis. 

However, it is critical that I acknowledge my privilege, as I am giving this opinion on lever-pulling morality from my armchair instead of actually pulling the lever myself, or worse, being the person on the trolley track. 

Feature Image by Shutterstock

Purujith Gautam is a Master’s Candidate in International Affairs at The Graduate Institute and he holds a BA in World Politics from Hamilton College. He can be found on Instagram at @puru_g or on Twitter at @puru_gautam.

2 comments on “The Trolley Problem and COVID-19

  1. Dr Sapna Sinha

    Enjoyed your perspective purujith. Easier said sitting on the armchair as a privileged person.


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