“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” -William James

trolley problem

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 there 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 hurtling 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?

Sure we can and it’s no scenario – we choose ourselves. America’s income gap has been making the news a lot recently thanks to workers at fast food establishments going on strike. Our wealth inequality seems to be worsening by the day as laid out in politizane’s viral video. Compared to the rest of the world, America’s poor still live pretty comfortable lives. Let me say that I am not negating the difficulties of being poor in America. I have lived it and would never downplay the grim reality.

Nonetheless, while millions of Americans struggle to pay for food and rent, 8 in 10 humans make less than $10 a day. Over three billion people have to survive on less than $2.50 per day. Stop. Numbers are too easy to glide over. Think about it. Half of the planet works a long day to earn what an American minimum wage worker makes in about 20 minutes. A billion people rang in the new millennium without the ability to read to sign their name. Most of those people don’t have immediate access to drinking water. Almost three billion people (again about half of the planet) lack basic sanitation systems. You know, what the more privileged of the world has had since the High Middle Ages? We still haven’t managed to get it to everyone on the planet.

It is estimated that the world could end worldwide poverty in 20 years. Again: end worldwide poverty in 20 years. All we would have to spend is $175 billion per year. Does that seem like a lot? Let me put it to you this way. America spends more money on its military than any other country in the world, to the tune of $680 billion per year. So. America could take enough money to END POVERTY out of its military budget each year and still spend $339 billion more than the next biggest spender on the list.

But what if America didn’t do it alone? What if each of the 30 countries comprising the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development pulled their funds together? The cost would be less than 0.7% of their total income. Why isn’t this the singular goal of the United Nations?

As Amanda Palmer said, we are standing on cliff. Only, we don’t have to step forward. The wide valley below leads to more inequality and perhaps our eventual demise. Let us take a step back instead. Spend just a little less on ourselves, toss our pocket change in the bucket for humanity. We don’t have to kill, but we do have to feel. We are not more deserving than the rest of humanity.

Imagine if we empowered our impoverished global neighbors. How many of our problems could be solved by bringing three billion new minds full of possible solutions to the table? No one can think clearly when their bellies are empty and written words are gibberish. We can save ourselves. We can save the individual and the group. We must stop concentrating on the railroad switch, there’s an emergency brake right beside it.


29 thoughts on ““Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” -William James

  1. Madalyn, your post was superb and really gets to the heart of the matter. I was in a debate last week with a guy who kept going on and on about how humans are so much more advanced than any other species on the planet. I said to him that if we are so advanced why is it that someone dies a horrifying death from starvation approximately every 5 seconds, mostly children, yet we have spent trillions on war/military and yes, even space exploration. We could have wiped out poverty a long time ago. We do not have our priorities straight, and I’m deeply dismayed at this ongoing apathy and lack of empathy.

    I agree with John, you should submit the article. ❤

    1. We are so content to not act. It’s as if we think we avoid responsibility or consequences. Stay silent, keep your head down, someone else will come along to take care of it. It’s infuriating that it really wouldn’t take all that much to put our world on the right track and we still don’t do it.

      1. Well, when I read the scriptures where Jesus reproved the apostles in Matthew 11, after the apostles became indigent that the woman used expensive perfume, pouring it over Jesus head, and said “Why this waste?” — “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” and Jesus replies with “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me”, that sealed it for me that Jesus was not a humanitarian, nor did he really care about the poor.

        We are experiencing the same apathy with climate change. The Pew Research centers shows that nearly half of Americans believe that Jesus is coming back by 2050, and over half of the evangelicals believe this.. I read a study that was published in a scientific journal showing that the belief in Jesus’ imminent return has played a major role in climate change apathy. In other words, why bother is Jesus is coming back soon.

        1. Indeed! Jesus said quite a few backwards and even despicable things. Not much of a surprise considering who his father was…

          Ugh. I remember that study. Not long after I realized I was an atheist, I came across a family member’s ‘Watchtower’ that discussed how the world’s water, food, and climate issues just needed a bandaid until God arrived to kiss our booboos away. I wouldn’t care so much about religion if it didn’t have such negative effects.

        2. Mama, you know I love your comment about Jesus and the poor! So true! People always talk about how kind Jesus was, even non believers and I’m like “seriously?” Yeah, he told his mother “Woman, it’s not my time” regarding her encouragement to perform his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding. He calls a Samaritan woman a dog. He gets so pissed about people marking up the price of sacrificial animals in the temple he actually takes the time to weave/make/braid a whip right there on the spot, then uses it on them. He calls one of his disciples “Satan” and rebukes the Pharisees by calling them a “brood of vipers” for simply following along with the God inspired Torah. He also never gave a straight answer speaking in parables and asking a question with another question, i.e., “Who do you say that I am?”

          1. How do they say this Jesus fellow was really wise if he gets angry at a tree and curses it while it’s out of season! Or when he and satan stand on top of a hill and claim they are seeing the whole world, seriously!

          2. LOL — I laugh, but in reality, it’s all so tragic — the enormous harm caused by people’s gullibility and lack of critical thinking, which religion greatly hinders. It bothers me deeply that we have the solutions — we have the knowledge and the resources to make this a reality — eliminating poverty. Yet in the time it took me to write this short post, at least 4 people died from starvation.

            Thank you Jesus.

          3. That’s it, right there. Religious thought cultivates inaction. There are exceptions, but for the most part it’s do your best to get into the next life and don’t worry too much about all this junk, it’s supposed to be bad and will get fixed later. In the end, religion removes responsibility.

  2. I’m with all the others. This was brilliant. It is something that plagues my mind every day, as I lived abroad for three years and was able to travel to some of the poorest countries in the world, such as Cambodia and Laos. Back home in the States people who have so much complain so much, and it kills me. It makes me want to leave my own country — forever. Where did you get those stats about ending poverty in 20 years, though? I ask because I’m curious — I fully believe it is true. A friend of mine recently commented on U.S. money spent on foreign aid versus advertising. The numbers were tragic.

  3. “Sure we can and it’s no scenario – we choose ourselves.”

    Yep. Quite.

    All those poor poor people out there. Let’s pray for them…

    Sorry for the snark. But I figure you’ll appreciate it.

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