Trolley Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago in Bible study, I had the opportunity to refer to the trolley problem as part of our discussion.  So it wasn’t without a chuckle or two that I found this article shortly after.

The trolley problem is a philosophical thinking exercise that examines how and why people make decisions.  It centers on whether you as a bystander would choose to allow a trolley to plow into a group of people, or to take an active role in diverting the trolley so that it only runs over one person.  Variations on the exercise adjust how direct your role really is – do you throw a switch to divert the trolley or actually push someone into the trolleys path to derail it?

It came up in Bible study because I was talking about how Christians are not utilitarians.  Our thinking should not be guided by the general maxim of maximum good/minimum harm.  Historically these maxims have led to some pretty brutal actions, as lives are denigrated for the sake of progress or the good of society or any number of other rosy-sounding goals.  Anything that allows us to treat human lives as units or numbers to be weighed on a scale for whatever purpose needs to be treated with deep suspicion.

But utilitarian thinking is prevalent in our culture, and Christians are not exempt from this.  This article is good at highlighting some of the shortcomings of the trolley problem while acknowledging that it has had a lot of influence on how people think.  I found it particularly interesting that this problem is being given new-life in terms of programming automated cars.  How do you program a car to respond in a situation where a collision is inevitable?  How does the car choose what actions to take?  I suspect that generally it will be programmed top take the actions calculated to result in the fewest injuries or deaths.  That sounds like a simple thing, but is it?

What if we push the example to more detail – could you choose between killing a child or an elderly person?  A business executive versus a transient?  While utilitarian thinking in terms of raw numbers may be unavoidable (we routinely claim that dropping the A-bomb on Japan saved countless American – and Japanese – lives), we have to recognize that pretty quickly the same logic can be used to elevate the worth of some lives at the expense of others.

As Christians we recognize that we live in an imperfect world guided by the perfect, revealed moral and ethical law of God.  While the law is perfect, our condition is not and we will sometimes be faced with choosing to the best of our ability the lesser of two evils.  Lie to the Nazi officials at the front door to protect the Jews we are hiding in our basement, or tell the truth knowing it will result in the arrest of the people in the basement and likely their death?  Christians want desperately to believe that we can keep our hands clean, that we can avoid breaking God’s law but the very nature of the world we live in and our fractured selves – simultaneously saints and sinners – means that none of us have clean hands, and there will be times when we are left to deal with the wracking guilt of wanting to obey God’s law and not being given the option to.

We will want to justify ourselves in that situation, to indicate that it wasn’t wrong to lie, or that we aren’t actively participating in the deaths of others at the expense of our own consciences.  We will want to demand that God validate our choices and actions so that we can escape the guilt of failure and disobedience.  But this is an illusion.  An illusion that leaves us – oddly enough – with the only comfort we can truly trust in this world.  We go to God and confess our sinfulness, our brokenness, and rest in the forgiveness assured to us by the cross of Christ and the empty tomb.

Confession and absolution are light things when we don’t examine our consciences fully, or when we feel as though we’ve done a pretty good job for the day or the week.  But when we know we have failed, when we actively failed – even though we wanted to do good – then confession and absolution are revealed as what they are, gifts of God to his fallen and broken creation.  Means of sustaining ourselves and getting out of bed each morning without the crushing weight of our collective guilt immediately blotting us out of existence.

A clean conscience is a blessing.  A forgiven conscience is far better and more assuring.  If I say I have no sin, I am probably deceiving myself, whether I choose in the moment to allow the trolley to continue towards the crowd or take active steps to direct it towards a less devastating fate.


One Response to “Trolley Thoughts”

  1. Driving Philosophy | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] blogged a short while ago about a resurgence of interest in the Trolley Problem, and that one of the reasons for this is the need to program driverless cars to make appropriate […]

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