Tuesday, April 23, 2024
HomeCOVID-19Lockdowns, vaccines and the trolley problem

Lockdowns, vaccines and the trolley problem


FIFTY years ago the philosopher Philippa Foot posed the following problem. A trolley or rail wagon has broken loose and is heading down a line towards a group of workers. They are in a narrow cutting and cannot possibly escape. However, there is a branch line on to which the trolley can be diverted, but on which someone stands with their foot stuck in the rail. You can flick a switch and decide whether the group dies or the singleton dies. What should you do?

It’s an unreal dilemma of course but it serves to illustrate the strengths and limitations of ethical positions. One who believes in doing the greatest good for the greatest number will kill the singleton: the group is larger, so it must be saved. Others will agonise: do we really think lives can be counted like teaspoons? Do we want a world where people can make such cold-blooded calculations? Surely there must be something else we can do? We can debate suggestions in a dispassionate way as we would with a baffling crossword clue, but it’s an exercise, it’s not real, it’s never going to happen in front of our eyes. We hope.

Svetlana Alexievich, in The Unwomanly Face of Wardescribes a real trolley problem that arose when Russians were hiding from the German invaders in a swamp in 1941. The group included a mother and her newborn. She could not feed it because none of them had had any food or drink for many days. The Germans were close. Shots and screams and dogs could be heard as other families were discovered. The baby began to cry. The whole group, all thirty, were in danger.

A survivor told what happened next: ‘The commander makes a decision . . . No one can bring himself to give the mother his order, but she figures it out for herself . . . She lowers the swaddled baby into the water and holds it there for a long time . . . And after we cannot raise our eyes, neither to the mother nor to each other.’

Over the past year all governments have been faced with a version of the trolley problem which has taken new energy from the vaccine programmes. If a lockdown will save X number of lives but harm Y number of others, is a lockdown justified? The UK has answered yes. It seems that Sweden answered no. If a vaccine will protect most citizens but maim or kill a smaller number, is it morally justifiable? The UK says yes but some countries answer no.

It seems to me that most decision-makers have taken the simplistic, utilitarian line that what is good for the majority is the best policy. There has been little debate on the ethical aspects, except on this website. Much of the discussion has focused on side issues: whether a particular vaccine is British made or not; whether the pharma company is supplying at cost or reaping a profit; whether opposition to it is just the EU’s continuing Great Brexit Sulk.

I don’t know what the answer is, or even if there is one that will satisfy all of us, but one thing I’m sure of is that an opportunity to explore ethical issues should not be lost. Is there a supreme virtue that could guide us? The Greeks would have said courage, the virtue without which no others have any ladder on which to climb. Have we courageously faced up to this pandemic’s moral lessons or evaded them? Schopenhauer, a favourite writer of mine, thought Compassion was supreme, the virtue that tears down the wall between Thou and I, as he put it, the recognition of one’s own essential being in others. He read the London Times every day and agonised over reports of cruelty. Were he alive today I’m sure he would be writing about the tragic case described by Kathy Gyngell in TCW yesterday. 

Perhaps our ethical systems and moral codes, and a good chunk of our reasonings, are helpless in the face of our troublesome world, but we’ll never know for sure unless we wake up.

I have done no harm. But I remember now

I am in this earthly world, where to do harm

Is often laudable, to do good sometime

Accounted dangerous folly.

That’s Lady Macduff wrestling with herself in Macbeth. We should too.

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