How to Solve Worldwide Poverty. Seriously.

How to Solve Worldwide Poverty. Seriously.

So, you’re taking a stroll on some rarely used train tracks. The track you’re walking along branches off not too far from where you are. A lone walker is going down one branch while a group of teenagers are congregated on the other. As you reach the fork and are considering which way you want to go, you see a train coming towards you. It’s still a little way off, but you hop off the track all the same. Turning around, you discover that neither the individual or the teenagers have noticed the oncoming train and are still on the tracks. You call out to them (as if the train wasn’t louder than you), but none of them notices. Perhaps the lone walker is deaf, maybe the teens all have ridiculously loud headphones on.

Regardless, no one is reacting to you or the raucous sound of the locomotive. The train is almost to the fork when you notice that their is a manual railroad switch next to you. You realize that unless the teens notice, they’re about to meet a rather grisly demise. So, do you flip the switch and send the train hurling toward the clueless, singular person or do you just watch?

Odds are that you recognize that little thought experiment as a variant of the trolley problem. The point of the exercise is to determine the minutiae of our ethics. Is it better to act and be directly responsible for an arguably lesser tragedy or is it better to passively allow an arguably worse tragedy to take place? There are several ways to complicate the experiment. Making the singular person one of great importance in the world or a family member of the potential switcher, tying the group to the track so they are double victims, or taking away the switch and asking you to push someone on to the track instead. Would you jump in front of the train? So many possibilities.

The studies on this are surprisingly consistent. About 90% of us are willing to divert the train towards the innocent bystander. Subjects whose brains showed more emotional activity were less likely to flip the switch and only 68% of philosophers were willing to do so. Sociopaths have no problem flipping the switch while the rest of us are wondering what kind of equation we ought to employ. The solution seems so simple and yet there cannot be a correct answer.

I think I would count myself among the 24% of philosophers that either had a different view or could not make a decision. My stomach is awash in acid just typing this out. While I can rationalize all the reasons to flip the switch, it is far more likely that I would stand there gawking until it was too late to do anything at all. I imagine I’d start running down track wailing in a futile effort to reach the group before the train did. In fact, I think I’d be far more likely to fling myself in front of it if I knew it was enough to stop the train. Honestly, I’m pretty good in a crisis. The small (and monumental) decisions are the impossible ones for me.

This whole thought experiment reminds me of Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra’s song, The Killing TypeThe music isn’t for everyone, so here are the lyrics that stand out to me:

But I would kill to make you feel
I don’t mean kill someone for real
I couldn’t do that, it is wrong
But I can say it in a song

I heard that if you see a star at night
And the conditions are just right
And you are standing on a cliff
Then you can close your eyes
And make a wish and take a step
And change somebody’s life

I always thought that the trolley problem was an interesting one and truly problematic for me, but I was shocked to learn the results of the studies. I have to wonder how many of that 90% would pull the lever if it were actually in front of them. We are not an active people. We are creatures of habit. Mind numbing, dull, tedious habit. Many people don’t take an active role in their own lives, much less the world at large. Most crave the day-to-day, the nine to five. Not because that is all they are capable of, but because that is all they are comfortable with. It is the structure of our lives. Can we really even fathom the life-and-death scenario of choosing one person over a multitude of others?

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