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.

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.

Rereading Native Son

I’ve begun re-reading a book (with the students in my philosophical issues in literature class this semester) which, as I noted here a while ago, made a dramatic impact on me on my first reading of it: Richard Wright‘s Native Son. Thus far, I’ve read and discussed Book One with my students (on Wednesday last week); we will resume discussions on April 8th once spring break is over. But even on this brief revisitation I’m struck by how my reading has changed. I’m now twenty-six years older than I was on my first reading. Then, I was thinking about returning to graduate school; now, I’m a tenured professor assigning the same text to my undergraduates. Then, I read Native Son in the anticipation of discussing it with my girlfriend, who had gifted it to me; I think I subconsciously hoped to impress an older and wiser woman with my sensitive and nuanced take on Bigger Thomas’ fate. Now, I read Book One (Fear) of Native Son in anticipation of discussing it with my students, many of whom have already shown themselves capable of sensitive and nuanced readings of the novels I have assigned them thus far; I therefore look forward to their understanding of this classic novel, daring to hope that they will bring a new interpretation and understanding of this material to my attention.  For my part, I’m far more attentive to many plot details and devices on this reading; I’ve become, I think, a more careful and sensitive reader over the years, looking for more, and often finding it, in the texts I read.

Before we began class discussions I subjected my students to a little autobiographical detail: I informed them of my prior reading, of the book’s influence on me, of the passage of time since then, how I would be re-reading the text with them, and so on. I did not detail the full extent of Native Son‘s impact on me; that discussion will have to wait till Bigger’s trial and his defense by Max. But I cannot wait to do so; I wonder if I will be able to capture the sense I had twenty-six years ago of suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light. One part of that anticipation also fills me with dread; what if my students simply do not ‘get’ from it what I was able to? What if, indeed, as I read on, I find myself disappointed by Native Son?

But if the first class discussion last week was any indicator, I needn’t entertain such fears. My students ‘came through’: they had read the first book closely; they had responded to Wright’s dramatic evocation of a fearful, angry, and violent Bigger, living in a ‘black world’ disjoint from a ‘white world,’ destined to run afoul of those forces that had conspired to make him who he was, to drive him to kill, negligently and willfully alike, onwards to his fatal rendezvous with America, his home and his graveyard. Bigger’s story endures; it does so because much else–like the forces that harried him–has too.

Talking About Natural Law With Children

Last Thursday, thanks to New York City public schools taking a ‘mid-winter break,’ my daughter accompanied me to Brooklyn College and sat in on two classes. My students, as might be expected, were friendly and welcoming; my daughter, for her part, conducted herself exceedingly well by taking a seat and occupying herself by drawing on a piece of paper and often, just paying attention to the class discussion. She did not interrupt me even once; and I only had to ask her to pipe down a bit when she began humming a little ditty to herself. After the second class–philosophy of law, which featured a discussion of St. Thomas Aquinas and natural law theory–had ended, I asked her what she thought the class was about. She replied, “it was about good and bad.” This was a pretty good answer, but things got better the next day.

On Friday, as we drove to gym for my workout and my daughter’s climbing session, I picked up the conversation again, asking my daughter what she made of the class discussion and whether she had found it interesting. She said she did; so I pressed on and the following conversation resulted:

“Let me ask you something. Would you always obey the law?”


“What if the law told you to do something bad?”

“I would do it.”

“Why? Why would you do something bad?”

“Because I don’t want to go to jail.”

“You know, I’ve been to jail twice. For breaking the law.”


“Well, one time, I was angry with one country for attacking people and dropping bombs on them, so I went to their embassy and protested by lying down on the street. When the police told me to move, I didn’t, and so they arrested me and put me in jail for a day. Another time, I protested our university not paying the teachers enough money for their work, and I was arrested again for protesting in the same way.” [Strictly speaking this is a bad example of civil disobedience; I wasn’t breaking a law I thought unjust, rather, I was breaking a law to make a point about the unjustness of other actions.]

“Did they feed you in jail?”

“Yes, they did.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

“Well, so what do you think? Would you break the law if it told you to do something bad?”


“Why not? The law is asking you to do something bad.”

“What if I was wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if I was wrong, and it wasn’t bad, and the policeman put me in jail?”

“What if you were sure that you were being asked to do something bad?”

“Then I wouldn’t do it.”


“Because I don’t want do bad things.”

“But isn’t breaking the law a bad thing?”


“So, why are you breaking the law?”

“Because it’s asking me to do a bad thing.”

At this point, we were close to our turn-off for the gym and our parking spot, and so our conversation ended. A couple of interesting takeaways from it:

1. We see the social construction of a legal order here in the making; at the age of five, my daughter has already internalized the idea that breaking the law is a ‘bad thing’ and that bad things happen to those who break the law. She can also identify the enforcers of the law.  This has already created a normative hold on her; she was inclined to obey the law even if it asked her to do something bad because she was worried about the consequences.

2. My daughter displayed an interesting humility about her moral intuitions; she wasn’t sure of whether her thinking of some act as ‘bad’ was infallible. What if she was wrong about that judgment?

Note: My reporting of the conversation above might be a little off; I’m reproducing it from memory.

Studying Ancient Law In Philosophy Of Law

This semester in my philosophy of law class, I’ve begun the semester with a pair of class sessions devoted to ancient law: Mesopotamian, Biblical, and Roman. (My class is reading excerpts from a standard law school textbook: Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications by Stephen E. Gottlieb,  Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton, & Robin L. West.) I chose these sections for class reading and discussion because as the authors put it, “First, it is useful to know about the origins of law….Second, the legal documents from the Ancient Near East offer you a comparative perspective…you will find illuminating points of similarity and difference with our own system of laws, and that will help you to identify seemingly universal features of law and to spot particular characteristics that distinguish our own legal system, characteristics that you may have assumed were universal. Third…studying the earliest attempts to impose law gives us an opportunity to examine the reasons for using law as a means of governing….we will find…hints about the original reasons for choosing law, as opposed to other methods of ruling.” Moreover, these excerpts offer us some of the “earliest attempts to reflect on the rule of law…[they] pose a set of questions that have defined the field of jurisprudence ever since….In contrast to contemporary jurisprudence these ancient writings offer clear distinctions between the different approaches: they present arguments about positivism and natural law in purer form.”

These considerations offer a series of compelling arguments for why the study of ancient law should be included in a philosophy of law course; the description of law as a historically evolving and contingent technology of governance is one that every student of law–philosophical or otherwise–should be familiar with. (I regret never having including these sorts of materials in my previous iterations of this class; philosophy of law anthologies for their part, do not include material on ancient law.) If today’s vigorous class discussion–on a preliminary reading of the laws of Ur-Namma, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi, and Yahdun-Lim was any indication, this syllabus selection has been a hit with my students as well. My students were particularly enthused by an introductory exercise that asked them to write a prologue, a few laws, and a conclusion in the style of these legislators; we then discussed why they picked the prologue and the laws that they did; this discussion allowed me to introduce the concept of the ‘expressive impact of law’ and also the so-called four-fold model of behavioral modification, which shows that law is but one modality by which behavior can be modified (the others are social norms, market pressures, and architectural constraints.) Moreover, these legislative excerpts are written in a very distinctive style, which permitted a preliminary discussion of legal rhetoric as well.

I often get syllabi wrong; and much remains to be done in this semester, but for the time being I’m reasonably pleased that this class–which sputtered so spectacularly last year–is off to a bright start in this new year. Hope springs eternal.

The Ones That ‘Get Away’

Every year, every semester, there they are: the barely visible, the unobtrusive, the ones who hardly register, who barely leave a trace.  There they are, every semester, filing into my classroom, sometimes staking out corner positions, sometimes not. (Sometimes they will attend, sometimes not.) They will not speak, they will show varying amounts of interest in classroom proceedings; they seem curiously bemused by, detached from, all that seems to be taking place around them. I try to reach out, sometimes with carrot, sometimes with stick. My success rates remain mixed. Every semester, some students come and go, and as finals and grading come and go too, I realize we could both say about each other, “I hardly knew ye.”

I do not think these students are just slackers or anything like that. Many, I’m sure, are introverted, shy, withdrawn, reluctant to speak up in a room full of strangers and a person of authority and risk their silent ridicule; yet others are victims of a bureaucratic arrangement which ensures that they have registered for a class because it was: a) an onerous degree requirement whose rationale they do not understand; b) an eligible elective that worked with their work-and-personal-and academic schedule. Whatever the reason, the student in question is present, and yet not.

Every semester, some measure of guilt and self-doubt with regards to this situation afflicts me: Did I try hard enough to reach out to the student concerned to find out how they were  finding the readings and class discussions? Did I just concern myself with the ‘easy cases’ and shrink from the true pedagogical challenge at hand? I feel this especially acutely because I know that on many occasions someone who has seemed quiet and distant all semester long will suddenly reveal, in the course of a one-on-one conversation in my office–perhaps following a paper review session or something like that–that great depths lurk beneath that placid exterior. Sometimes it is evidence of a sparked interest in, and actual engagement with, the readings and classroom discussion; sometimes a minor personal remark will help me realize why this student maintains the distance he or she does. On these kinds of occasions, I feel a flush of shame run through me for having thought unkindly about this human being–one as conflicted and confused as me.

Whatever the reason for this failure to establish communication and contact with my students, every semester ends with some melancholia and regret on my part. I will probably not see them again; they will go on their own way. We spent fourteen weeks together, meeting twice a week for seventy-five minutes, but we didn’t ‘get to know each other.’ I sense an opportunity lost, one never to return. I know I’m a finite being with finite resources of interest and energy–intellectual and emotional; sometimes I do not have enough to take on board all the challenges my student raise. I know that as a teacher, I’m supposed to play additional roles as well–an amateur therapist and social worker at times. Failure in those roles needn’t be an indictment of me as a teacher but I wonder if I fail in the basic human dimension of failing to show interest in those who come into contact with me for an extended period of time. It’s a thought I will take forward with me to the next semester, already visible on the horizon as this one winds down.

Teaching Gone Bad: Reflections On A Semester Gone Wrong

Teaching has gone wrong this semester. I do not need to wait till the end of this semester to write my usual self-assessment; this semester has been a disaster. Two of my three classes are dead in the water, drifting aimlessly; my students and I are locked in a fatal embrace of disinterest and mutual distrust. They do not do the readings or display interest in class; I fail to generate interest in the readings, to hold their attention, to provoke their enthusiasm. We have both dropped the ball; the failure is joint and collective; I do not think this is an unfair indictment. It is clear to me that I’ve gotten the syllabus for one class terribly, terribly wrong–though I wonder if any readings could have held the interest of the particular group of students registered for that class; in another class, I remain happy with my reading list but find myself increasingly frustrated by the students’ utter lack of engagement with the material. Unsurprisingly, I’m teaching worse, and it shows: my students’ expressions assure me they have noticed and are responding. I have, out of frustration, muttered irritably in class about the need for greater engagement with the readings, for the need for written responses to the readings (which I sometimes fail to collect, so passive have I become); my students seem to listen, but their actions indicate only partial comprehension and compliance. Once, in a fit of irritable anger, I informed my class that they did not have to attend if they were not interested in the material, that life was short, and they should expend their time wisely; my students have smartly taken me up on the offer and voted with their feet. Yesterday, in one class, out of twenty-five students, only four bothered to show at class time. Another one drifted in at his usual thirty-minutes-late mark; two others staked out spots a little earlier. The disaster is complete; you can stick a fork in these classes; they are done, done, done.

I have often written here of the best of the teaching experience, of its utter indispensability to my intellectual life; this is the worst of the teaching experience, generating a demoralizing experience that corrodes my sense of self-worth and induces acute cognitive dissonance about my career choices and my identity as a teacher. The end of the semester seems too far; I cannot rely on any running out the clock strategies; the only way out is through. I do not seek advice from my peers; they will not tell me anything I do not already know. This is not arrogance, but hard-won knowledge. Some pedagogical strategies are impossible–for a variety of reasons–for me to implement; yet others have already been tried. Teaching despair is at hand; I do not know how to put all of us, teacher and student alike, out of our collective misery.

Every happy class is alike; every unhappy class is unhappy in its own distinctive way. I’ve found my personal and private version of teaching hell this semester. May it not be anyone else’s.