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.

9 comments on “HMS Ulysses And The Trolley Problem

  1. Justin W. says:

    I appreciate this cautionary approach to trolley problems. I express related reservations about their use here: http://dailynous.com/2018/07/02/trolley-problems-youre-wrong/.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Hi Justin, I remember that post of yours and I liked it a lot. It’s way more comprehensive than mine. Thanks for linking to the my piece here. Writing it has made me want to re-read HMS Ulysses, a brutal anti-war book.

  2. rgressis says:

    I taught a class on the Trolley Problem last semester. I wish I’d had your post available as a counterpoint to this one: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/11/the-trolley-problem-will-tell-you-nothing-useful-about-morality.

  3. Derek Bowman says:

    I thought I was in agreement with your point until I read this clause: “they are not supposed to adjudicate between ‘rival’ ethical frameworks and show that one leads to ‘better’ decisions than the other. ”

    Perhaps they don’t help us adjudicate between frameworks in the sense of unambiguously identifying the best or right one. But surely it helps us adjudicate among the live options by drawing our attentions to the shortcomings of some, even if other such considerations (and other literary or real life narratives) will point to the shortcomings with others.

    This, in turn, lead me to wonder how much I do agree with the parts I thought I did. I think I’m still in agreement with your assessment of what we learn from such scenarios, but can we learn that if we don’t – at least initially – treat them as problems to be resolved? For myself, it’s only by desiring to solve them and having my efforts frustrated that I can come to a lesson about the complexity of ethical decision making.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Hi Derek, thanks for the comment. Perhaps one way to think about it is that the Trolley Problem looks like one to draw you in, but turns out to not be one when you think it through. Then the remarks I made above apply. And what I mean by not adjudicating rival frameworks is that it does not so much decide between them as much as illustrate their features, strengths, and weaknesses. I think we are in agreement.

  4. Santiago Aguilar says:

    Hey, don’t you think a possible solution can be to sacrifice yourself, I mean I understand your point and I think you have some great ideas, but recently I was watching a video/series about this problem and saw that sacrificing yourself was a way to solve it, from your point of view do you think this is a good possible answer?

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