A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?Ethics are hard.
The trolley problem is a thought experiment, though. No one has ever encountered it in real life. No one ever will. What about other questions?
Should one shop for chocolate at local stores that only sell products by Hershey and Mars and Nestlé, thus supporting companies uninterested in protecting the rights of cocoa farmers, or should one shop for chocolate at Fair Trade retailers online such as Divine Chocolate or Sweet Earth Chocolates, thus ensuring that none of the money stays in the local economy? One could do without chocolate entirely, but then it's that much harder for the employees of both the local stores and the Fair Trade stores to earn their livings, and also one has no chocolate.
Should one support international treaties to reduce carbon emissions, thus protecting the environment, or should one support international efforts to bring everyone up to the same standard of living, thus reducing privilege? One could support both, but how to industrialize nations without dumping mountains of soot into the air?
Should one support the Occupy movement, because economic oppression is something very nearly all of us suffer from, or oppose the Occupy movement, because it fails to consider other forms of oppression? (Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street, anyone?)
Should one contribute money to the local food bank, thus feeding the local hungry, or to water.org or the like, thus giving water to the worldwide thirsty? It's an either-or; a dollar given to one charity cannot go to another. It's possible to contribute to both charities, of course, but there are people suffering from malaria and AIDS and neglected tropical diseases. Which do thirsty people with leprosy need, water or medicine?
One can give and give until one has, like the woman in Mark 12 41–44, given all one has to give, but there will still be more need than one can answer, and then one will have neither food nor water nor medicine oneself. How will that help?
Ethics are hard, people.
And none of the above takes into consideration that ethics are, y'know, hard. I've written on this before. I can't ethically shop at Walmart, because they treat their female employees like crap and they keep prices down by paying their suppliers' employees hardly anything, and I can't ethically shop at IKEA, because they treat the US the way the US treats Thailand. There's a furniture shop conveniently located on South Main Street in the town where I live: it's owned by a family, not a corporation, and as far as I know it's entirely staffed by that family, so they have incentive to treat their employees right. But when I move into my own apartment, where will I be shopping for furniture? Walmart or IKEA, because a queen-sized bedstead costs $450 at the hometown furniture store and a comparable bedstead costs $150 at Walmart.
I don't have any answers. I wish I did. It would be so much easier that way.
The one thing I'm sure of is that it is possible—it is necessary—for ordinary reasonable prudent people to disagree on ethical issues.
Take the example of reducing carbon emissions versus raising standards of living. It is vitally important that carbon emissions be reduced. It is vitally important that people trying to live on 1 USD a day improve their standard of living. Which is more important—well, if I passionately argue one side, and Jane passionately argues the other, either we'll both get disgusted and walk away or we'll come to a conclusion somewhere in the middle. Maybe the solution is to gift solar panels to the villages of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa—voila, electricity to people in need without raising carbon emissions more than necessary to make and transport the panels.
But we can only arrive at such a solution if all sides acknowledge that, hey, the other sides all have a point.
Contrast the current state of US politics. One side wants nothing to do with cutting carbon emissions. That's the same side that wants nothing to do with improving the lot of the poor in any country. That is not on. One side of US politics wants us to shop neither local nor Fair Trade, because that's the side owning and owned by the national and international 'free'-trade corporations. That is not on. One side of US politics opposes the Occupy movement, not because the Occupy movement is going about dealing with economic oppression in a way ignorant of other oppressions, but because the Occupy movement opposes economic oppression. It's like there's a second trolley on the heels of the first, and instead of sending it over the person(s) killed by the first trolley, sending it on the other track. That is not on.
That side is the side that's winning, because the side that takes ethics into consideration is divided on what to prioritize, QUILTBAG rights or women's rights, jobs or the environment, universal health care or making sure our grandchildren aren't paying for the decisions we make today, and how to go about achieving whatever we finally decide to make the number one priority. If we ever do decide. Whether to pick a number one priority is an ethical dilemma in itself, as is what that priority should be if there is one.
G. W. F. Hegel, roughly translated, defines tragedy as the conflict not between good and evil but between two competing goods. Hegel never met contemporary US politics, and contemporary US politics have apparently never met Hegel.
We could all use some more Hegelian tragedy in our lives.
My opinions? We tried TARP and it didn't work, the banks are sitting on the money, so let's try giving money directly to those in need via hiring them—a government job is still a job—and via bailing out those with underwater and not-much-above-water mortgages. We can't afford lowering taxes on the upper middle class and up right now, and it's not like the military-industrial complex isn't a jobs program. Contribute small amounts to many charities—philanthroper.com is excellent for charitable crowdfunding. Join Occupy and stand up for the people Occupy helps to oppress in hopes that Occupy will collectively stop oppressing
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