HMS Ulysses And The Trolley Problem

I’m a professor of philosophy, and quite frequently, I teach classes on social and political philosophy and philosophy of law; the subject matters of these classes and their attendant discussions, very often, stray, as they should, into ethical theory and its foundations. There, on numerous occasions, my students raise the The Trolley Problem and ask me what I think the ‘correct solution’ is. I’ve come up with a variety of responses over the years and have ‘settled’ on something like the following:

The Trolley Problem is not a problem or a puzzle to be solved. There is no solution per se. It is a mistake to ask anyone for their solution to it. The Trolley Problem is rather, designed to illustrate the insuperable difficulty of ethical decision-making, to suggest that very often, if not always, we will find ourselves unable to make what we, or anyone else, would consider to be a ‘correct’ or ‘satisfactory’ solution to an ethical problem. Indeed, the fact that such ethical decisions will leave traces of dissonances within us and others should suggest to us that any decision-making ‘calculus’ or ‘procedure’ is likely to be flawed, and that at best, we should only expect ‘approximate’ or ‘satisficed‘ resolutions of ethical dilemmas.  These dilemmas serve to educate us about the dimensions of the human problem that generated them, and may further guide our ethical decision-making in related domains. But that is all they are supposed to do; they are not supposed to adjudicate between ‘rival’ ethical frameworks and show that one leads to ‘better’ decisions than the other. There is no ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ that is ‘correct’; instead, if the problem is fully fleshed out, at best we should expect to learn about the kinds of human situations that can give rise to them, and how we may ‘work around’ them in the future. We will gain, as a bonus, an added insight into why human affairs have been quite so messy and complex over the years. That is all we should expect from our reading of, and ‘resolution’ of, ethical dilemmas.

To illustrate this claim–and to further make the point that literature can provide moral instruction as well as, if note better than, formal ethical theory–I tell them the story of reading Alistair Maclean‘s WWII novel HMS Ulysses as a teenager, and the effect that one particular incident within it had on me. The precise details are a little hazy–as might be expected, given that I read the novel more than thirty years ago–but the outline is quite clear. An Allied convoy consisting of merchant ships and destroyer escorts is headed to Murmansk to deliver supplies to Russian forces; a German U-boat sneaks in and torpedoes one of the ships of the convoy; as the ship burns but refuses to sink, the captain of the HMS Ulysses orders it sunk in order to prevent its burning ruins from attracting German long-distance bombers and other U-boats from attacking other ships in the convoy; this order is reluctantly executed by a young midshipman despite the fervent expressions of horror and dismay by junior officers and enlisted men; after the torpedo is fired, we find out that that midshipman’s brother was one of the sailors on the ship he had just torpedoed.

When I finish telling this story, suitably embellished to bring out the horrors of the situation being described, I describe the conclusions I drew upon reading it:

War is a cruel and inhumane business; it makes monsters out of all us; military discipline is fascistic. We should not fight wars because we should not put men and women in conditions that require them to take decisions like the one the captain of the HMS Ulysses and the midshipman had to take.

There was no ‘correct solution’ for this WWII trolley problem. The only solution to it was to not fight the war that allowed it to develop. But notice again, that WWII was a gigantic Trolley Problem all of its own with no ‘solutions’ except for very difficult, painful, and entirely ‘suboptimal’ ones. By its end, the Allies had committed many war crimes in an effort to combat other moral atrocities.

There is no getting away from the difficulty of ethical decision-making; any ‘professional’ ethicist who believes otherwise is a charlatan. Those who believe such solutions obtain are deluded.

Climbing The Grand Teton (And Finding Myself At The Top)

In August 2012, my wife and I went on a road-trip through parts of the American southwest and west: New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota were our most prominent destinations. We camped and hiked in several national parks; I made note of some of those experiences here.  Among the national parks we hiked in was Grand Teton National Park; there, we went on a day hike up to Surprise Lake. The views, as promised, were spectacular; we sat by the shores of an alpine lake and gazed at the surrounding peaks and glacial cirques, awed and humbled by the stunning setting for our well-earned picnic lunch. (My wife, by some measure the more enterprising of the two of us, even partook of what seemed like a bone-chilling dip in the waters of Surprise Lake.)

On the way back to the parking lot, we met climbers returning from their ascent of the Grand Teton. I stopped to ask how their climbing had gone; I was curious and envious in equal measure. I knew the views they must have enjoyed would have been even more spectacular than ours; and of course, mountaineers and climbers have always enthralled me with their feats. The climbers enthusiastically responded; they had made it to the summit in good time, and were now headed back to the parking lot for some well-earned rest. When I enquired further about their experience up on the peak, they replied that it had been a ‘totally doable climb; you’ve got to have a head for exposure, of course.’  On hearing this, I turned to my wife and said, “Yeah, that’s why I’ll never climb the Grand.”

I’m scared of heights and have been for as long as I can remember. Even the mention of exposure up on the mountains was enough to send a little chill through my heart. I wanted to see what the views from the summit of the Grand were like; I knew that up on its ridges and faces, I would encounter a spectacular alpine landscape. But it felt beyond my reach; quite simply, I did not have the mental wherewithal to venture into that domain.

This past August, I climbed the Grand Teton in the company of my guide, Chris Brown, (of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides) and another climber, Kirk Nelson. We ascended via the Pownall-Gilkey route, one made easier by the presence of roped slings on its most challenging pitch. There was some exposure but none of it paralyzed me; I had started to accept my unease at being exposed to precipitous cliffs as an inseparable part of the climbing experience.  When I made it to the summit, I was visibly overcome with emotion; at that moment, the feeling of having managed to work through one of the most persistent fears present in my being was among the most powerful I had experienced in a very long time. For I knew that at that moment, I had, in a manner of speaking, found entrance to a new world, one in which I would not be limited by a fear that would hold me back from venturing forth to explore its offerings. I had not imagined that this task was one I was capable of undertaking, but there, on that summit, I had proof of its successful accomplishment.  It was, as the cliche goes, a transformative experience; I saw myself in a whole new light.

Our self-discovery is not merely a matter of introspection; very often, if not always, it requires acts that change, by active construction, the person we are. And could become.


The Supposed ‘American Dignity Of Labor’

One family dinner a few decades ago, my brother and I made one of our usual smart aleck remarks about how it would be nice if our monthly allowance (or ‘pocket money’ as we called it in those days) were increased by our parents. My mother shot back with a quick, “Yes, and it would be nice if you boys did a honest day’s work to earn some of that pocket money!” When we responded, “But what kind of job would we do?” my mother supplied us with a list that included sweeping floors, taking out the trash, washing the family car and the like. In response, we continued along our utterly clueless path by making disparaging noises about how that kind of work was not what we wanted to do. My mother’s demeanor changed as she shot us the dirtiest of looks. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of work, and we should have been happy that we were being given a chance to earn our allowances. She suggested we were spoiled and needed to rent a clue. (Or words to that effect.) And then, she continued in an even sterner of voice, “Do you know what children in America do? They work during the summers when they are off school! They do part-time jobs, and they don’t care what kind of work it is; they don’t turn up their noses at work! It’s not like around here [in India] where everyone seems to have a high and mighty attitude about what kind of work they consider appropriate for themselves. In America, there is dignity in labor!”

My mother was hectoring us because she knew of the snobbishness of the Indian middle-class, its elitism, its unredeemable arrogance about menial professions and ‘humble, low-class’ work. She was right, of course; we were children of the middle-class and we had absorbed all of its lessons quite well. Domestic help, the sweepers and janitors, the folks who pumped gas at stations, the shopkeepers, they were all beneath us precisely because of the work they did. And here was my mother, reminding us that in that magical land called America, where things were so much better than they were here, in this chaotic land of never-ending dysfunction, one key differentiating point was that its people respected work, no matter what it was, and who did it. That’s why it was so prosperous and powerful. So she thought, and so we believed. Many American myths traveled quickly; and they endured well.

There were many disillusionments waiting for me in America. Among them was a rapid dispelling of the very notion of an American dignity of labor. Here there was shaming aplenty of those who were ‘flippin’ burgers and servin’ fries,’  pumping gas at stations, cleaning toilets, taking out the garbage, washing dishes–or just plain doing ‘minimum wage work.’ It didn’t take me long to cotton on to this fact; my first job was washing dishes in the cafeteria, and by the end of the semester, ironically, a complete reversal had taken place. I didn’t mind telling other international students–including those from India–that that was how I was making ends meet; they knew what had to be done. But I was always mortified when I told my American friends about it. I had begun to doubt they would see any ‘dignity’ in my ‘labor.’

Reunions And Changing Persons

A couple of weeks ago, in a reunion of sorts, I had lunch with some folks I to went high school with; six of us attended. Out of the attendees, I was meeting three after a gap of thirty-four years. This is the longest interval of time in my life between two meetings with the ‘same person.’ The reason for those quotes should be evident to all of those who have undergone such encounters: very often, our intuitions about the identity of those we meet after such a long time are shaken by the differences between the two stages of their ‘growth’ or ‘evolution’ that we have encountered.  Moreover, in these encounters, we experience something of the puzzling nature of time and memory: Where have all those years gone? Is the past a place? Why do those past events seem so ephemeral? How can the memories of events so distant in time be so much fresher than the memory of yesterday’s events? The chilling thought crosses our mind that perhaps we will experience a similar sensation on our deathbeds, if we are fortunate enough to be lucid to experience them as such–will we experience then, just as now, the curious sensation of two points in time, seemingly separated by an insuperable gap, folding as it were to make contact with each other? Will all that came before seem like a ‘mere dream’?

That afternoon in Palo Alto, as I sat in a backyard patio, enjoying pizza and salad in the company of my high school friends, I was struck by variants of these thoughts. Across the table from me sat my five-year old daughter, on my left sat a classmate from thirty-four years ago. My daughter perplexes me consistently with her ever changing self; she is not the girl she was a year ago; she is not the tantrum throwing toddler from three years ago; she is not the babbling language learner from four years ago; she is not the infant of five years ago; soon, her present self will change, ever so imperceptibly, into its next ‘stage.’ My friend looked a lot like she used to but she sounded different; her accent was modulated, she spoke of college-age daughters. At another end of the table sat another friend; his turban was gone, his hair was a silvery white–his appearance was so radically dissimilar that I put the older self I knew out of mind and concentrated on the one present at the moment. In the case of yet another one of my friends, we had realized that we had hardly known each other in school, hardly ever conversed; yet, here, now that we had met, our new selves liked each other well enough to fall almost instantly into a pattern of behavior that approximated that of old friends; our old selves were the anchoring memory that allowed us to so easily trade in a kind of otherwise inaccessible familiarity.

Here, new relationships were possible, indeed, they were necessary. The older lives offered material for reminiscing; our new selves and lives possibilities for new friendships configured on different grounds.

Summits As Virtuous Constraint

This past summer, on July 8th, as noted in a post here, I climbed Long’s Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. A minute or so after I stepped on to the summit, grabbed a quick sip of water, and removed my helmet, I shook my guide Rob Smith‘s hand, and thanked him profusely. I was close to being ecstatic. I had risen at midnight, picked up Rob at one am, and started hiking by 2AM. On the approach to the base of the North Face–from where we would pick up the Cables Route–I had been half-asleep, somehow willing myself to keep up with Rob as he motored along. As dawn  broke, and as the imposing massif of Long’s rose up above, I was feeling the effects of having gained some 3000 feet of elevation on an empty stomach and little sleep. The climbing and scrambling sections of the North Face were mercifully easier than that long, rock-and-boulder strewn approach march, and of course, they required more attention to technical detail, which induced its own alertness. Along with these physical sensations was a sense of foreboding and anticipation; I was keeping an eye on the weather for I did not want to be disappointed again. I had made plans to climb Long’s in the summer of 2017 and had been thwarted then–before we could even set foot on the trail. Then, the forecast had made Rob and I change our  plans the night before. Since then, my mind, overcome with disappointment, had immediately begun a downward spiral in the course of which I had kept track of all the summits I had been denied by bad weather conditions: Stok Kangri in 2011, Cotopaxi in 2018, Mt. Washington in 2016 and 2017. I had begun to believe I was jinxed in the mountains, that these twists of fortune only happened to those who were insufficiently prepared, who did not belong in the mountains. Doubt had crept into my mind that when my guides had suggested turning back on each of those routes, they had done so because they did not trust me to ascend successfully.

So when I stepped on the summit, a spell broke. Suddenly, I was reassured that I belonged here. I had been told that ‘Long’s Peak will be still here when you come back next summer’ but I hadn’t taken it to heart. Now, I did.  I had not ‘conquered’ anything, except, of course, for my own doubts and insecurities. And in this state of mind, it had become clear to me too, all over again, that a summit was not a thing to be conquered. Rather, as I saw it in the clear light of that Colorado morning, a summit was a virtuous constraint, one that clarified and organized my life, driving me onwards. The mountains were not a domain in which I went to find success for myself, to find targets to pick off, to rack up ‘kills’ and ‘hits’ and notches on my belt. They were instead, where I could go to accept failure, to reconcile myself to its inevitable presence, in some shape or form, in my life; they would teach me acceptance and forbearance and some measure of stoicism in the face of forces much, much greater than myself. My summit failures had kept on bringing me back to the mountains; they had induced me to train harder, to keep hoping. Yes, I had despaired too, but not entirely. After all, wasn’t I here, in the mountains, all over again?


Falling Into Fall

Classes began yesterday for the fall semester of 2018. I returned to Brooklyn College, to campus, to find an office in disarray: a paint job had resulted in displaced furniture, books, and worse of all, networking cables, resulting me in not having an internet connection all day. It was a rude and chaotic end to the summer, an unpropitious start to the fall’s reading and writing and learning. I was in a foul mood for most of the day; only the presence of my daughter–who accompanied me to campus because she had no camp this week–in my office and classroom restored some of my good humor.

I’ve been off the blog for a while; for most of July and August. My blogging was sporadic in June as well. In part, this was because of increased responsibilities both personal and professional, but mainly because I traveled to Colorado, Wyoming, and California for various climbing, hiking, and camping trips. With those done, I now face some onerous deadlines for writing projects; the good news–I think–is that the proverbial batteries have been recharged and I’m ready to get back to work. I express that notional doubt because like those who spend some extended time in the outdoors, you wonder whether you have, in a manner of speaking, ‘left your mind out there somewhere,’ that return to enclosed and crowded city spaces might prove to be a bridge too far. We will soon find out once I find myself–again–staring at unfinished drafts and recalcitrant passages of writing.

In many ways, the summer was transformative on the  non-academic fronts; I became a slightly better climber and developed some confidence to take on more ambitious ventures in the mountains; I worked through, many times, my fear of heights and exposure (indeed, I owe at least a pair of posts on the subject of being present for one’s fears and ‘mastering’ them through familiarity);  my daughter showed a love for the outdoors that was heartening–she hiked a pair of fourteeners and spent three days climbing outside in Boulder Canyon, El Dorado Canyon, and the Second Flatiron. I can only hope that she will stay with this passion and let it guide her in the years to come. Much more on those hopes too.  (On the academic front, little transformation happened; my reading and writing fell off sharply.)

Two classes loom ahead of me: a repeat of last spring’s philosophy of law seminar with the same set of readings, while my philosophical issues in literature calls on a new set of five novels for reading and discussion:

Nicola Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek.

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris.

Daniel Quinn, Ishmael.

Lynne Sharon Schwarz, Disturbances in the Field.

Irvin Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept.

There is plenty in these texts to spark discussion if they are read; I picked novels with slightly more explicit philosophical content to make class discussions a little easier.

Every semester begins with hope; new books and new students always bring that to my doorstep. I’m ready for fall’s latest installment.

Acknowledging Prayers Offered On Our Behalf

On 30th July, I hiked up to Corbet High Camp–operated by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides–in Wyoming’s Teton range in the Grand Teton National Park–to begin an attempt to scale the Grand Teton on August 1st. There, at high camp, my climbing partner and I met another pair of climbers, young lads from Louisiana, headed up the Grand the very next morning; we would be sharing camp with them for the afternoon and evening. We chatted and exchanged pleasantries; many notes of excited and nervous anticipation made the rounds; we each confessed to the peculiar state of excitement and apprehension that seemed to possess us. Later, as time for dinner approached, the older of the two lads asked us if we would mind if he offered a ‘mountain blessing’ before mealtime. We said we had no problem with him doing so.

And so our new friend took off his hat and bent his knee in prayer. He asked his Lord and God for protection on this mountain; to aid him with good luck as he attempted to climb the mountain with his cousin; to bless all those he had met today and made friends with and who would also be climbing the mountain; to lay his protective hand over all of them alike. As he spoke, we laid down our spoons and forks and waited; when he had finished speaking, we all thanked him. (I cannot, in this text, recapture my friend’s distinctive Louisiana accent, but it was present, and it added a little touch of the South to the Western alpine setting.)

I’m an atheist; I do not pray. But I was unambiguously grateful for the prayer that had been offered on my behalf; my thanks were sincere. They were so not because I expected benedictions to now flow my way but rather, because I was deeply appreciative of the gesture of kindness that had just been directed at me. I did not doubt the sincerity of the faith of that young man from Louisiana; he believed all right. And if he did, and had the relationship to his faith that I thought he did, then his asking for blessings to be sent my way which would protect me on the mountain and return me safely to my family were an expression of genuine concern and friendship on his part. Up there on that mountainous perch, the majestic Middle Teton and its enormous snowfields clearly visible, I was conscious of my own insignificance in the face of nature’s grandeur and might; my friend’s blessing was a fortification of my humanity in the face of such natural power, it was a reminder that when we climb mountains we always seek to return to those who love and care for us, that friendships and companionship are ever more important on the mountains, that I would need the help of the others to get up and down safely. Acknowledging the sincerity and warmth and these diverse messages of that blessing, the gesture it made, was the only right thing to do. Even for a non-believer.