The trolley dilemma or trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics. The problem states that we have a trolley on railway tracks going directly towards five people. They are tight to the tracks and therefore cannot move. The trolley is also unstoppable. You are standing next to a lever with a full picture of the situation. If you pull the lever the trolley will switch to a new set of rails. However, the new direction has one person tied to the tracks. Then you have two options:
1. Pull the lever and the trolley will kill one person
2. Don’t pull the lever and the trolley will kill five people
This is a dilemma because if you pull the lever you’re being utilitarian and you end up killing one person and preventing the death of five. Whereas by not pulling the lever you take no moral responsibility and five people die. This problem is interesting because it has many dimensions. For example, the only person that would die by pulling the lever could be someone you love, then you may be inclined to let the five die.
Why I’m telling this? Why we got the dilemma wrong as stated in the title?
Well because it’s not about the people who would die, but about the trolley company that would get the service interrupted. With the current pandemic, the famous coronavirus COVID-19, politicians and other authorities have been faced with a novel problem. Something that happens once in a lifetime. Something that we hope will never see again. Since January different countries have been forced to take extreme measures to prevent the spread and contain the virus as much as possible so the health system did not collapse. As I’m writing this some countries have failed but it is still important to minimize the spread to give time to the hospitals to treat successfully the maximum amount of people.
The health care system has collapsed in some countries because politicians were reluctant to apply the right measures on time. In part, I attribute this to the fact that successful prevention would have been deemed as an over-reaction. However, in Spain they had a 2-week forecast by looking at Italy. Then why did the government fail miserably? Because of the trolly company. The trolley company here represents the economy and our politicians reacted late because they didn’t want to disrupt the economy. Some have already wondered if it would be better to let the elderly die for the benefit of the economy while others think that the show must go on regardless of the consequences.
With an economic collapse and meltdown on the foresight, USA, Europe and others already prepared incentives to smoothen the fall. Some even argue that these incentives won’t prevent the economy to fail and certainly won’t help much the average citizen.
Those incentives are predominantly oriented to save the economy, not to the individual who is suffering. Such a grinding halt on the world economies has affected negatively a lot of people. People who cannot go to work. Small business owners are forced to shut down indefinitely. Any bar, restaurant, disco is closed until further notice. Hotels have close to 0% occupancy. And yet the government is worried about the big business. Too big to fail? Should we save big business because then indirectly we are saving lots of jobs? When I say “we” is because that money comes from our taxes the ones taking the decisions have other tax liabilities. Maybe in some cases we should save some business. But it’s my belief that those rescued businesses should suffer. CEOs should not be artificially pumping the stock so they get a bonus. CEOs should prepare for the future the best they can. It’s very advantageous if the wins go to the CEOs/companies and the losses to the taxpayer. But that’s not the way it should be because it incentivizes a reckless way of doing business and it penalizes businesses that were conservative and prepared for the long run. The unprepared ones should be let to fall. It incentivizes the survival of the fittest. However, if a company is deemed strategically important I’m in favor of rescues but with conditions. Rescuing should not be free money. It should come as shares or other assets that will return value back to the taxpayer.
So in conclusion. Are we f*cked? I would say yes a little, but with every collapse new opportunities arise. This may be the time for a paradigm change. Maybe we should repurpose the economy for the greater good instead of value extraction. Maybe it’s time to dust off old ideas and repurpose them for the modern world. Maybe it’s time to implement the Tobin tax and prevent short-sighted speculative trading with little value creation. Maybe we should take hazardous activities into the value calculation where polluting costs money. Maybe it’s the time to consider happiness, health and wealth being equally important metrics to optimize for the countries. Maybe we should reconsider widening the GDP definition and adding other non-monetary factors. Or simply we can give up, look down and follow the current system where rich people have assets and are protected against many setbacks while most people have to work for a living and this downturn may imply severe consequences for them.