Today’s bonus quote comes from Robert Tracinski’s October, 2016, article ‘The Humanitarian with the Trolley’:
“The Trolley Problem is all the rage now when people write about self-driving cars … [It] is an old philosophical conundrum about a runaway streetcar, where you have to decide whether to pull a switch that will divert the trolley onto Track B--where it will kill a single person--thereby diverting it from Track A, where it would kill a whole crowd full of school kids who all look exactly like Oliver Twist from that old movie. You get the idea…
“Ayn Rand's memorable rejoinder was in ‘The Ethics of Emergencies,’ where she dismissed such ‘lifeboat’ scenarios as irrelevant to morality. Moral principles are formed from and intended for the 99.9% of existence that happens when you are not in a life-and-death emergency. So the question is: why are philosophers so fascinated with those extremely rare scenarios?
“The most superficial reason, though I think it is actually a factor, is that such scenarios make ethics and morality seem brain-bustingly intractable. They make the esoteric ideas and reasoning of professional philosophers seems like the equivalent of quantum physics in its complexity. By contrast, things like figuring out whether you should cheat on your wife, or whether you should take a job that you don't enjoy because it pays more money--the ordinary kind of moral decisions people actually make in most of their lives--require very broad principles like ‘honesty’ that just anybody could understand. Which makes the task of the philosopher seem positively mundane, like a glorified version of Dear Abby.’ …
“Yet there's a deeper and much creepier attraction. Notice that all of these emergency situations have one thing in common: they require sacrifice. Somebody has to die if others are going to live. They all carry the implicit premise that moral problems require sacrifice, and that the main purpose of morality is to tell us who should be sacrificed to whom… So the purpose of starting with the trollies and lifeboats is to instil in us the idea that morality is synonymous with altruism, that it is synonymous with a morality of sacrifice.
Logically and historically, this is not true. There have been egoistic theories of ethics and those in which men's rational interests are considered to be harmonious and sacrifice is regarded as unnecessary. And it's not just theories of ethics. The science of economics, with concepts like division of labour, comparative advantage, and the invisible hand, was founded on that premise.
“It is the job of philosophers to separate out these hidden assumptions, to distinguish the idea of morality from the idea of sacrifice and to help us to think about them as separate issues. But I don't think it will be news to anyone … that today's philosophers aren't doing their jobs. In their loyalty to the ethical theory of altruism, they seek to equate it with morality itself, and the lifeboat and trolley scenarios help them do this and to propagate that assumption to the next generation of philosophy students.”