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.

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?”

“Yes”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want do bad things.”

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

“Yes.”

“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.

Reinhold Niebuhr On The Ethical Permissibility Of Political Violence

In reviewing Reinhold Niebuhr‘s Major Works on Religion and Politics, Adam Kirsch makes note of the following passage from Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

If a season of violence can establish a just social system and can create the possibilities of its preservation, there is no purely ethical reason upon which violence and revolution can be ruled out.

Kirsch then goes on to note:

[B]y the end of the book, Niebuhr has retreated from [this position] somewhat. In theory violence might be justified, he argues, but in practice the American proletariat has no more chance of winning a revolutionary struggle than do American blacks. For both of these disinherited groups, Niebuhr concludes, confrontational nonviolence on the Gandhian model is the best course: “Non-violence is a particularly strategic instrument for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority and has no possibility of developing sufficient power to set against its oppressors.”

Here, Niebuhr argues that political violence is ethically permissible but, given a concrete socio-political situation like the American polity–one with its  particular material circumstances pertaining to matters like the power and reach of its law enforcement apparatus, the material deprivation of its underclasses, and the fragmented relationship between them–tactically inadvisable. This is an interesting and important concession and qualification–especially coming from someone like Niebuhr who, because of his status as a Christian theologian, might be imagined to have some predisposition to ruling out violence on ethical grounds.

For what Niebuhr has conceded here, of course, is that in a different socio-political context, political violence might well be tactically advisable. Perhaps the relevant oppressed classes are more politically united–they have been able to build alliances geared toward revolutionary action; perhaps they are better equipped in material terms–with access to mass media and communication and reliable means of economic support. (In the American context, access to ‘weaponry’ takes on a whole new meaning given the militarization of its law enforcement forces and the proliferation of privately owned guns.) Viewed in this fashion, Niebuhr’s views take on a far more pragmatic hue: Revolution and revolutionary violence is a political business; it aims to change the distribution of power in a particular polity; its advisability is a matter of strategy and tactics; nonviolence, in some contexts, may have more revolutionary potential; in yet others, violence may suggest itself as a better political strategy.

Because I have no prima facie case to make against violence as a political tactic per se, I unsurprisingly find myself in agreement with Niebuhr. Doing politics and achieving political ends requires a toolbox; the more varied its contents, the better, for they are more likely to accommodate a diversity of polities and material political contexts.  Those tools find their place in our bag of tricks according to how ‘well’ they work. This ‘wellness’ can be judged in several dimensions; perhaps violence will be judged inadvisable in some context–as above–precisely because it offers little to no chance of success or threatens to produce too many undesirable knock-on effects. Whatever the case may be, our evaluation of our political options proceeds on pragmatic grounds. So-called a priori, ‘foundational,’ ‘first principles’ arguments against our political tools have no place here.

Nietzsche’s Inversion Of Natural Law In The Genealogy Of Morals

The radically constructive nature of legal and economic concepts emerges quite clearly in the brilliant second essay of The Genealogy of Morals. Here, Nietzsche sets out his view of how the concept of a contract creates persons, how the ethical subject is not found but made. For Nietzsche, the law, a set of human practices, ‘creates’ its subjects by acting upon humans to make them into beings capable of obeying the law. The inversion Nietzsche forces upon us takes from the notion of a contract as a legally enforceable promise to the notion of a promise as a morally enforceable contract.

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Freedom in the Absence of Social Convention

In reviewing Arturo Fontaine‘s La Vida Doble, “a harrowing examination of violence during the Pinochet period,” whose heroine is Lorena, “a female terrorist who is tortured, changes sides, and becomes a torturer herself”, David Gallagher writes:

But why in fact do good fathers and meek husbands and generous lovers undertake such cruel torture? Here Lorena sees the torturer as someone who becomes isolated from any sort of moral standard while granted absolute impunity for what he does, no matter how vile. In the glib manner of a French student of the Sixties, she speculates about two opposing views of what happens when social conventions have no effect. One is that you recover the innocence of the noble savage. The other—the relevant one in this case—is that you revert to a state of primal savagery. Because there are no limits, she tells the “novelist,” an inner monster springs to life, one we all potentially harbor. Once there is no possibility of punishment, “the monster we carry within us, the beast that grows fat on human flesh, is unleashed within the good father or the daughter of a good family.”

Notice that Lorena establishes a dichotomy–there are only two possible modes of behavior possible when social conventions cease to constrain us. But we might speculate too–perhaps for the benefit of a future novelist–that the absence of social conventions might result in a new kind of freedom, one in which, rather than revert to the two states described above, human beings experiment with finding new orderings of moral and ethical values. Certainly, it isn’t clear why these “two opposing views” are the only possibilities open to human beings, why our options in the face of the absence of social conventions would be so limited.

The “two opposing views” that Gallagher refers to are influential, of course, but that might be due to a lack of imagination on the part of those speculating about a convention-free world. In the absence of convention it would also seem just as likely that rather than being innocent savages or beasts, we might merely be utterly confused and bereft, content to experiment with modes of behavior and interaction that might provide some guidance for how to proceed in this newly ordered world.

The “lack of imagination” I refer to above, is an almost inevitable consequence, of course, of a deeply essentialist view of human nature, one committed to the idea that the visible human persona consists of two layers: an abiding, enduring, inner self temporarily covered by a thin epidermis of social convention. But a more existential view would suggest that when social conventions are removed, we have no way of saying what will remain. Perhaps the new being that will emerge will delight in alternating between innocence and bestiality, perhaps it will develop ever more complex characteristics, perhaps it will grow in dimensions–moral, psychological, and emotional–that we cannot yet fathom, gripped as we are by conventional modes of thought. When we think of how constraining social conventions–fundamentally and broadly understood–are, such speculation should not strike us too outlandish.

Shame, Rage, and Fascism

Jonathan Lear, in the course of a memorial address to the American Philosophical Association–dedicated to Bernard Williams–noted:

For Williams, shame needs to be conceived in terms of its inner psychological structure, in particular, in terms of internal objects and our relations with those objects. The basic experience connected with shame is of being seen in some kind of bad condition by an observer whose judgment matters. But: ‘Even if shame and its motivations always involve in some way or another the idea of the gaze of another, it is important that for many of its operations the imagined gaze of an imagined other will do’. This is what is involved in shame’s being an internalized emotional capacity, not merely an occurrent emotion in childhood in embarrassing circumstances.

Now, if shame is to function as a complex psychological phenomenon and if it is partially constituted by the imagined gaze of an internalized other, then we will have to admit that this internalized other is, to a significant degree, operating unconsciously. For we need to account for more than the relatively simple phenomenon of consciously experienced feelings of embarrassment before the consciously imagined gaze. In particular, we want to account for experiences that we take to be shame-filled, though they are not consciously experienced as such.

From there on, Lear is off and running, as part of his establishing that:

Williams’ approach to ethical life requires that we turn to human psychology; and the form of psychology required will have to be of a broadly psychoanalytic bent.

The unconscious operations of shame, of course, are of especial interest to therapists and their clients because of their peculiar and particular phenomenological manifestation: feelings of shame are visceral, tinged with a sense of abject humiliation, which, if not allowed to find expedited expression, may be directed outwards in ways intensely damaging to not just the subject but to those around him. Shame is intensively corrosive.

So shame and rage often go together. No one, it seems, is quite as angry, violent, or  murderous as the shamed one. When those feelings congeal into the  basis for a political ideology, they can become more broadly dangerous.

Fascism thus begs for psychoanalytic investigation; some of its central claims–like those of an imagined glorious past, lost to the machinations of a devious Other–rely on the creation of a social and political superego that instills shame in its adherents. The world becomes a stage populated by reminders and monuments of this humiliating defeat, grinning and leering from every corner. The associated shame is relentless in its invidious presence; the only escape from its sensations is a removal of those objects–humans included–that offend. Mere removal will not do, of course. The sensations of shame might only be assuaged by violent, destructive actions.  These become even more frenzied when it is realized that, shamefully, the Other was never a worthy opponent, never one that should have been victorious. The more this inferiority is emphasized, the greater the shame, the greater the rage.

It’s not just ethical life that requires a moral psychology with a psychoanalytic bent; so does politics.

Dexter, Psychopaths, and Vigilante Justice

Dexter provoked a great deal of commentary–as any long-running television serial on a killer-killing serial killer would (and should.) Now that I’ve finished the show–all eight seasons of it, after feeling several times during the sixth season that I would never make it to the end–I’ll throw in my tuppence.

Dexter‘s central conceit–the killings mentioned above–and its attempts to get us inside the head of an introspective, at times tortured serial killer wondering about his humanity, were always likely to need clever shepherding by its directors and writers so as to stave off the implausibility that always threatened to derail it. Most centrally, Dexter was a remarkably sloppy operator, often behaving in ways that should have gotten him arrested and put away several times over. As the show wore on, it became harder to believe that the uncoverings carried out by–in turn, James Doakes, Debra Morgan and Maria Guerta–had not happened earlier and led to his long-term incarceration. So the show did not always succeed in this regard; all too often, I found myself unable to take plot denouements seriously because they rested on exceedingly unlikely developments preceding it.

For all that, Dexter managed to provoke ample conversation about the morality of killing and vigilante justice, which, I presume, will be its central contribution to philosophy classroom discussions in the years to come. (Perhaps I’m being excessively kind in my assessments of its longevity.) There were problems here too, of course: Dexter himself was all too often only concerned with his own mental health, which was befitting a potentially psychopathic killer but which made for little agonizing over the kills themselves; his victims became a little less straightforwardly evil too late and too infrequently; and the Dark Passenger references all too often seemed ridiculous.

The central incoherence with vigilante justice is that it cannot be the norm, it cannot be universalized, it cannot co-exist with systems of law. To tolerate it is to ask for little less than a return to the bad old days–not that they have ever gone away–of unbridled revenge and all the social, emotional and moral costs that entailed. The show’s creators relied on for its appeal to an old weariness with the justice system, one explicitly tapped into in the third season: the machinery of law and justice is antiquated and tired; it moves too slowly; it is worn down by procedural detail; it punishes the good and lets off the bad; it cries out for blunt, fast-acting saviors willing to leap the bureaucratic hurdles it puts in the path of those only concerned with letting all of us sleep a little safer at night. 

Because of this reliance on a kind of knee-jerk impatience with the law, the show was perhaps not as genuinely edgy or ground-breaking as it might have been. To do that, it would have had to really push the envelope and show us a serial killer or psychopath who didn’t put on the vigilante hat; it would have had to explore his psychological development with just a tad more nuance. But that would have run the risk of humanizing the psychopath, not treating him as unanalyzable evil.

That’s still a little too risky.