• COVID-19 and the Trolley Problem: You’re on the Tracks and the Government Is Controlling the Switch

    Most wannabe moral philosophers know the “trolley problem” or, to be more accurate, the class of trolley problems, which seek to reveal whether you’d take a deliberate, positive action that you know will harm someone in order to reduce harm to others. The purpose of these thought experiments is to shed light on morality and moral intuition.

    The classic exemplar considers whether you’d flip the points on a train track to send a trolley loose from a train that was going to kill three people on its current course down another track where it will kill only one. If you flip the points, then the moral upside is that you saved three-minus-one-equals-two lives net; the moral downside is that you were directly responsible for killing a man.

    One can almost hear excited moral philosophers’ whispering, “It’s happening.” The coronavirus is the trolley problem of the century. Well, almost.

    Some government institutions and officers have decided to harm millions of people by closing businesses, making workers unemployed, and separating people from their family and friends … in the sure and justified belief (we assume) that they are mitigating more harm than they are causing.

    Perhaps they are. But how sure can we be? And does it matter?

    More terrifying than the virus—at least to this writer, who (full disclosure) being healthy, is quite sanguine about his odds of surviving a virus that almost certainly would feel like a nasty flu, at worst—is that irresistible government forces have decided to flip the points on the track.

    To push the analogy a little over-hard, they seem to think that by doing so, they save lives on one track at the cost of only breaking legs on the other.

    But the moral calculus depends entirely on how many lives will be saved or can be saved (they are not the same thing) compared to how many livelihoods will be destroyed and other harms done.

    And the answer to that query must account for the fact that those destroyed livelihoods and other harms will in themselves lead to some losses of life—which may be much less visible than deaths from the virus.

    We all know why governments are doing what they are doing. By forbidding travel and closing businesses for example, they are attempting to “flatten the curve”—lower the peak number of COVID-19 infections in the hope that a larger fraction of those who suffer from them can be successfully treated. Doing this means that the peak will take longer to reach, and the strategy won’t necessarily reduce the total number of people who become infected or die from the virus in the long-run (though it may).

    I am now just one degree of separation from people who have already been made jobless and/or homeless by the enforced shutting of workplaces. If you cannot feed or shelter your family, then on the balance of probabilities, the outcomes for you and your kin are going to be worse than exposure to the virus—especially if you and yours are physically healthy. (Recent figures from Italy suggest that 99 percent of all deaths from the virus were of people who were already ill.)

    The effects of enforced poverty and isolation will accumulate over time—and a few of them