Would you push your best friend in front of a speeding CN train if it saved a group of children from being run over? Sacrificing the smaller good to benefit the social whole underpins the philosophy of Utilitarianism. A present-day example would be where a “riot involving hundreds of deaths may be averted only by arresting some innocent scapegoat and calling it punishment” or, perhaps, censoring internet news so that dissidents don’t get unpleasant ideas about their government’s policies (Smart, 206). The outcome of a society where everyone protected their loved ones first, and the anonymous mass second, would be very different than one where, like Spock on Star Trek, everyone weighed the options and erred on the side of greatest benefit for greatest number.
The question of good and bad ethical choices is one that comes up all the time: in our social media culture there’s a marked tendency to hide or nullify perspectives that disagree with hegemonic consensus. But it’s worth asking where our common sense comes from; the Trolley Problem (ie. the train mentioned above) allows us to use extreme examples to uncover problems with our beliefs. Asking where our baseline ideas come from reveals that facts, like emotions, are produced in a certain time and place to benefit some at the expense of others.
How we act is by no means a mere calculation process; it’s the summation of all the social indoctrination and private reflection that makes us who we are in a given moment. On a good day we’re proud of our choices and opinions and on a bad day we might realize that we’ve been led astray, sometimes by authority and other times by voices in the wilderness who made sense to us at the time.
University education is about seeing the processes by which we come to hold something to be true; we learn to see the epistemological germination by which reality comes to seem self-evident amid the shade that hide other forms of truth. This is the value of thought experiments like The Trolley Problem: by going to extremes we can see flaws in our fortress of righteousness and certainty. In each small moment of life we can discover how we define the notion of goodness that’s so key to how we see an act or belief as right or wrong. This notion of wrongheaded ideas is at the core of ethical philosophies; as students it’s wise to pause and reflect on where we stand on matters of interference for good intentions. Taking charge of our learning is all about delineating choices and defining priorities.
Are We Ever Just A Number, Really?
Affairs of math seem far from the heart but where utilitarian thought is concerned math matters most. Do we spend a pleasant Sunday doing extra research readings on topics relevant to a cherished elective course or do we slog through some of the more dire and soul-mangling aspects of, say, an arid offering such as research methods in the social sciences. Our answers matter for marks and, even deeper, for how we see ourselves. Immanuel Kant, who would appear a polar opposite philosopher to utilitarians like John Stuart Mill, asserted that we must “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law (in Smart, 208). Whatever we do, we should expect others to do the same, but what if our desires conflict with the will of the mob? Saving children is generally a great idea, even at the expense of our poor friend, right? Yet, in either case, our morals are going to be beleaguered when faced with such a painful choice. To consider an abstract extreme allows us to grapple with more mundane matters: the greatest distance, it’s often claimed, is between the heart and the mind.
Even finding single answers implies individualism in a way that belies our unique identities. Teamwork applies even within ourselves; to have all of our predilections on the same page can be difficult, but it’s part of critical thinking. The old phrase, “let not the left hand know what the right is doing,” presents a paradox when we write essays: often, upon researching a topic such as racial profiling or the treatment of Lower Canada (Quebec) by their British imperial masters following the Seven Years War, we may come to conclusions that disturb the clarity of our assumptions. To argue multiple points of view effectively is part of writing a good essay; we may, for instance, abhor racial assumptions but we can still consider that a heavier surveillance of Chinese travellers might reduce the fentanyl pouring into our cities. Without sacrificing our progressive virtues, we can improve our cherished values by considering how to apply empirical data to a task at hand. One expert on America’ government-funded media says that, because fentanyl enters the country through criminal gangs, “we should not shy away from indicting Chinese and Mexican officials and businessmen that are complicit either in the illegal trade or in subverting cooperation” (Felbab-Brown). In other words, drug pushers may be powerful people and to focus on their race is less important than to challenge those in positions of societal power. Solutions are more than math; they’re about who is in control.
Disturbingly, even in a medical setting, fentanyl goes missing—apparently as a result of conduct by the health care workers hired to protect and preserve us. Health Canada records list 483 reported fentanyl disappearances as “unexplained,” another 50 as “pilferage,” two as theft and only one as a break and entry.
In the data, pilferage is defined as “theft from a site by authorized personnel” (Edwards, online). A utilitarian view would suggest that a chill needs to be put on such behavior; a Kantian would say that we might be better to just remember the good nurses we’ve thanked for their service and not seek any heavy-handed solutions that punish good workers to send a message to the bad. In the broader medical context, it was a utilitarian view, the view that led us to (rightly or wrongly) all wear masks and almost all get the COVID vaccine largely to protect the elderly and vulnerable.
Kant, living up the many puns on his name, would remind us that we can’t generalize to a whole from the experiences of individuals other than ourselves. Sometimes others just plain have different viewpoints than we do and some questions have answers only knowable to ourselves. In the initial train crash problem, he’d likely point out that besides the people we’d save or allow to die, we’ve also have another person to consider: ourself. Whatever our choices in the abstract or in real life interactions, we are going to have to live with ourselves afterward. So, we’d better not get too mathematical with our opinions or perspective and instead do what we probably learned in our initial English course at AU: be honest with ourselves and our feelings by doing and saying things that make us proud.
There’s a reason that punishing people who are innocent sounds so unpleasant; our inner Jiminy Cricket is chirping with consternation because a lifetime of spidey-senses amount to more than just a series of sentiments. Although our brain might tend to assume that saving innocent children takes preference over our desire to spare the life of a cherished friend, it’s clear that even this extreme case illustrates the depths of ethical complexity endemic to being human. Within our hearts we clearly have some inclinations that defy math and even logic; our cognitive processes are more complicated than an abstract dilemma can quite explain. The paradoxical complexity of our humanity is why it’s worth revisiting our core beliefs, such as that the good of the greatest number ought to naturally be the goal of social policy, before we take a collective view of society and our planet. Giving a quick response to the trolley problem is a bit like googling an easy answer to a study question rather than reading our assigned textbook chapters. The right thing to do isn’t always easy; our conscience and intuitions speak a language that isn’t easy to explain. Therefore, AU can allows us to see ourselves and our choices in a new light, one with advanced learning not only to bolster our conclusions but also to augment our willingness to think contrary to long-held assumptions.