Syria and the Trolley Problem

Courtesy of Neuroethics Canada.

Courtesy of Neuroethics Canada.


Imagine that you are standing at a junction in train tracks with your hand on the lever. You can see a train barreling toward you from the left; you can also hear the engineer’s frantic whistle blows. You look to your right to see what or whom the engineer is trying to warn and notice a group of people – say, five or six – tied to the tracks directly in the train’s path. You start to pull the lever in order to change the train’s trajectory to the other track, but then suddenly notice that the other track has one person tied to it in the same fashion. Therefore, you have two options: either do nothing and allow a large group of people to die, or act and directly cause the death of a smaller group. What do you do?

This dilemma is known as the Trolley Problem and is well-known in the philosophy field. First proposed by Philippa Foot in 1967, it is a thought experiment that allows us to examine hypothetical situations by applying reason and ethics. Like Lartéguy’s Ticking Time Bomb, Nozick’s Experience Machine, and Rawls’ Original Position, Foot’s question has had a lasting influence on how we think about ethics. If her proposal sounds familiar, it is because it is in essence the same dilemma the US under President Obama faces regarding the Syrian civil war: whether to act and potentially cause additional deaths or to remain passive and simply allow the current deaths to continue. Some critics have pointed out the futility of engaging in even more killing in order to stop killing that is already happening and others have responded that it would be worse to allow Assad’s slaughter to go on unchecked (For now, let us leave out the additional ethical variable of chemical weapons since it has not been proven conclusively that Assad’s regime has actually used them), in effect validating his actions. It is rare that political theorists are able to so directly apply abstract thought experiments to real-world issues, so this opportunity should not be squandered.

The side of the argument that favors intervention could be said to adhere to consequentialism, which is the notion that the end result of an action is more important than the morality of the action itself. This is a kind of utilitarianism, which is the ethical school that argues that morality is determined by the course of action that results in the highest possible utility for all involved regardless of what happens to any particular individuals; utilitarianism views action and consequence as no more than crunching numbers, effectively weighing any supposed immorality of an undesirable action against the positive consequences of said action, thereby addressing only the “net” morality at stake. “The ends justify the means” can be said to be the mantra of utilitarianism. According to consequentialism, even if the US intervenes in Syria and causes additional deaths during the period of this intervention, if the end result is a significant reduction in the Assad regime’s ability to further inflict destruction on his own people, then the deaths caused by the US will have been for a good cause and in essence justifiable. In our current seemingly jaded environment of realpolitik, consequentialist arguments often win out over more “moral” stances in policy debates. As Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations, used to say, “We are all consequentialists now.”

The deontological argument is directly opposed to the consequentialist. Deontology argues that morality is inherent in an action itself, regardless of its consequences. Calling Assad’s alleged sarin gas bombardment a “moral obscenity” and urging armed intervention in response is in essence a deontological argument; ostensibly, the issue at stake for those who have taken such a position, such as John Kerry, John McCain, and President Obama, is the action itself, not the consequences of the action. Even if the consequences of the action might be to draw the US into yet another interminable, unsolvable Middle East conflict, and even if it provides more ammunition to those around the world who would do us harm, deontology would not allow for another course of action. For a deontological argument to carry serious weight, however, the moral fiber of the ones taking such a stance should be beyond question. Given Washington’s not-so-distant past of either directly participating in or consciously allowing chemical weapons attacks, it is doubtful that the so-called “moralist” argument some politicians are putting forward is convincing very many people. It is therefore possible that the deontological argument is merely a cover for the more consequentialist decision to merely hurt Assad enough to keep him from being able to win the war outright since a clear victory would be contrary to Washington’s interests. For that matter, the same goes for a rebel victory, which may be one reason that Washington has been careful not to aid the assorted rebel groups too much. The assurances by American leaders that any potential military campaign against Assad would only be “a shot across the bow” and “just enough to be more than symbolic” – therefore intended to be strong enough to reinforce the international norm against using chemical weapons but not to actually “punish” him for his brutal war – also support this theory because such a campaign would conveniently leave Syria stuck in a civil war. As some have already pointed out, if either side wins, the US could lose, making a small-scale intervention that merely hampers Assad an arguably consequentialist move.

Keeping all this in mind, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee just voted to approve President Obama’s Syria campaign. If Congress as a whole approves it, then we will almost certainly go to war yet again (although it does not mean that we will not if they don’t approve it). This could be an important insight into the very nature of democracy vis-à-vis utilitarianism vs. deontology. Since the goal of democracy is ostensibly to represent as many constituents as possible while leaving out as few as possible, and therefore achieve the greatest utility for as many people as possible, doesn’t that in essence make it utilitarian? We entrust elected officials with the responsibility of making decisions on our collective behalf every time we enter the ballot box. Some have argued that the election process inherently validates any decisions made by those officials, as the Korbel School’s own Condoleeza Rice did when asked by a Korbel student at a panel in 2012 how the Patriot Act could possibly be constitutional: by choosing these officials, we are collectively giving them the right to carry out moral decisions on our behalf and represent us all in a utilitarian fashion. Because of this, the moral outrage of individuals within a democracy, however justified or fervent it may be, can only affect so much. Therefore, if our government is formed in such a utilitarian manner – as it certainly seems to be – is it any surprise that the government may take a purely consequentialist course of action in regards to Syria, as it has so often in the past? That’s all it knows how to do. Maybe we really are all consequentialists, after all.

Alexander Bowe has an MA in International Studies from the Korbel School and is currently a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Tsinghua University.

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One thought on “Syria and the Trolley Problem

  1. […] how does this apply? On The Korbel Report (University of Denver), Alexander Bowe makes the connection between this scenario and Washington’s policy approach on Syria.  The problem of using […]


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