Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Trolley Problem and the Protest Voter

In a well-known thought experiment called the Trolley Problem, a train is hurtling down a track towards five people tied to that track, and you can pull a switch to move it to a different track on which one man is standing.

This is generally used to explore moral choice and whether you'd be personally willing to kill one person to save five. If you do so, his blood is on your hands, but if you don't throw the switch, five people will die.

It would be a terrible decision to make.

It's also a lot like the decision voters are facing this year. The train is heading down a track called TRUMP that will cause horrible disasters, inflame racism, bring trade wars and possibly real wars, destroy America's standing in the world, and give us a right-wing Supreme Court that will chip away at our civil rights for decades to come.

The other track is called CLINTON. The train will cause less damage if it goes down the Clinton track, but there's likely to be some poor judgement, some foreign misadventuring, and a poorly-handled scandal or two.

It's a grim decision.


If only there were another way. If this were an action movie, you could fire a rocket launcher that curled the track up so that the train would fly up and sail right over those people, landing on the track right past the victims.

You could also do nothing and hope for a miracle. Perhaps the train will run out of gas right before it hits anyone. Or Doctor Who will appear and send it through a time portal into an alternate dimension where no one is tied to the tracks.

What you really need is another switch. Not one that will actually effect the direction of the train, but one you can pull so you can feel you're doing something without having to make this terrible decision.

Let's give you that switch and put a sign on it that says "PROTEST VOTE." Pull it, and you can tell yourself that those five dead people aren't your fault at all; you pulled a switch; what more could you do?


Right now we have a choice of presidents: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. One of those two people is going to be president. And a lot of people are just watching that train speed down the track and saying, "hey, it's not my train." Republicans who hate Donald Trump are saying, I can't vote for him, he's a dangerous incompetent with no qualifications, so I'll vote for a third party, but never Clinton, because she's evil. Hardcore Bernie Sanders supporters are saying they'll just write his name in rather than vote for Clinton; multiple people have said to me, in virtually the exact same words, "it's not my fault if Trump wins; I'm not the one who chose an unelectable candidate."

Years ago a friend was defending her vote for Ralph Nader in 2000. Her position was simple: if she just voted for someone terrible because their opponent was even more terrible, she was accepting this terrible political system. Things would never get better if people didn't stand up and refuse to cooperate with the status quo.

It's a fair point, but the question that should be asked is, did voting for Nader do anything besides help make George W. Bush president? Did it create a powerful liberal movement? Did it cause politicians to change their ways because a sliver of the populace was unhappy with both sides?

No, it didn't.

If we had a different system for electing people, where parties could gain power according to the proportion of their vote, or where there was a series of run-offs that would make a third-party vote more than just a throwaway, we would have a mechanism to change the system. But we don't, and I don't think many of the protester voters are even working to change our electoral system in a way that would give them that power.

Meanwhile, third parties seem loathe to go through the nuts and bolts of building a party, as Dan Savage pointed out in a wonderful diatribe:

If you're interested in building a third party, a viable third party, you don’t start with president. You don't start by running someone for fucking president.
Where are the Green Party candidates for city councils? For county councils? For state legislatures? For state assessor? For state insurance commissioner? For governor? For fucking dogcatcher? I would be SO willing to vote for Green Party candidates who are starting at the bottom, grassroots, bottom up, building a third party, a viable third party.
Voting for a third party presidential candidate won't advance any agenda. It won't give that party more power, more influence, more legitimacy, or a better future. It will be just the same as voting for "none of them."

And you can do that if you want. Just admit that this is all you are doing. You are not changing the system or creating a brighter tomorrow. You are saying "fuck it."


You don't have to do anything about that train. It's not your train. You didn't send it down the track. You didn't tie those people up. Why should you take responsibility for other people's actions just because you're the one standing there?

The people on the track screaming "please don't let us die" are probably less philosophical. To them, the mistake made when the train started moving cannot be rectified, and the only thing that will save their lives is you pulling that switch.

And it's a painful switch to pull. I mean, my god, you're going to kill someone! Sure, you'll save five people, but you'll be responsible for a death. How is that fair?

Perhaps after you pull your protest vote switch, someone else will rush up and pull the working switch so you can feel good about yourself and your principled refusal to take responsibility for a problem not of your making. If not, you can watch those people die and say, "fucking railroad company, this is all their fault."

Hopefully you'll feel just as good about that decision later on, when you're tied to the track, the train is coming, and the one person who can save you turns to go.