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The runaway train and the vegetarian

May 26, 2017

Recently, the old moral conundrum about the derailed train popped up in conversation. Slipping into a reverie, I only rejoined the conversation when it had segued onto: “Why aren’t you a vegetarian, then?”

The speaker wasn’t vegetarian, but I understood immediately how he had got to that point. The recipient of that question had been one of the people who posits that, given the choice between leaving a train to derail and kill five people, or diverting it to kill only three people, they would choose to divert it.

From there, the conundrum deepens; what if you, personally, had to kill these people face-to-face, by your own hand? Most people who took the numbers approach, i.e., would reroute the train, here change tack and say that they could not do it, if it involved this kind of direct, personal, overtly violent action.

This leads naturally onto the question of vegetarianism because, when asked if they could kill an animal directly, most meat eaters would say they could not or would not.

Even those who claim they could, never actually do, or when faced with the opportunity, turn it down, especially if it involves something more up front and personal than firing a long-range rifle.

I always think that the numbers-is-logic answerers of the conundrum answer too quickly. They say “Of course I would divert the train,” as if that’s all there is to it and the answer is completely obvious.

Those of us who demur probably better understand the implications of this act. To “play God” and directly intervene in the lives of others has a potent effect on your psyche.

It would raise alarming questions about you, if you did not live uneasily with the guilt of taking an active role in killing those three people.

For that is what the reality that numbers-people tend to brush over; you are not merely saving five people instead of three. You are killing three people.

I am not saying that doing nothing is necessarily more moral or even assuages your guilt better, since you will still be beset with the knowledge that you could have done something. But you will know that the event itself was not your fault, but rather circumstance.

Guilt is a natural part of living through an event in which others die, but it comes in different levels; I think it highly unlikely that the experience wouldn’t be different, and worse, if people died by one’s own hand.

The numbers-people raise the objection that being witness to something and doing nothing makes you equally responsible. They will often cite the example of Nazi Germany, where people standing by “allowed” the Holocaust to happen.

I would counter than it was not the inaction of bystanders that caused the Holocaust, it was the action of the Nazis. And there is no more Nazi-ish ideology than the killing of some for the greater good of a majority.

However large a group the Jews were, they were still not the majority of the population. The idea was to make the lives of the majority – non-Jewish Germans –better, at a time when it was pretty bleak.

It may not have been a kill-or-be-killed situation, but the them-or-us mentality of it was similar enough that several people felt justified in the gassing of millions of people.

This is why I have a problem with the notion of human intervention into life itself, without the express permission of those involved.

If we were ultimate beings, perhaps we could intervene without prejudice. If we had ultimate knowledge, we could consider important other attributes, such as years of life remaining and quality of life.

But if you cannot ask an agent how it feels about its life, it is inappropriate to make assumptions about it. Another wing of the conundrum is that, perhaps those five people are all old and sick, perhaps the three are young and vigorous.

If you are one of the people who would redirect the train, these circumstances change your answer, which raises the question of why you have the right and responsibility to rank the life worth of other people.

It is morally inconsistent. If individual characteristics matter, why does that person’s mind jump straight to numbers, and stay there until coaxed away with scenario embellishments? It should be the first point of consideration, not the last.

If you would not reroute the train, your answer stays the same; without taking it upon yourself to consider the qualities of the individuals whose lives are in your hands, you are considering them all equal.

You are considering them all as individuals with the right to life. Even though there are more individuals in the group of five than the group of three, the two groups are numberless and thus remain equal.

As soon as you intervene, you make it your choice who lives and who dies, as opposed to accepting that you aren’t equipped to make that choice. Using others as a means is not a choice you should feel free to make.

There is a reason why human rights (and the future of animal rights) lies in value of the individual, not in the value of numbers. It’s because it’s the only solid moral state.

The rest can be reshaped and formed to changes in circumstance; the privileging of certain groups, leading to nationalism, ageism, ableism, racism or speciesism. This is what comes of thinking of people in numbers and groups, as opposed to unique agents.

By choosing to kill three and save five, you are focussing on the numbers and not on individuals. That depersonalisation is the easy way out; it is the way we justify acts that should cause us a moral twinge. We kill millions of animals by figuratively flicking that lever – by walking into a shop and lifting a meat product from the shelf.

The saving of five people in replacement of three is just about justifiable. But unfortunately, the source mentality filters down into progressively less justifiable decisions, such as the choice of whether to buy meat, or to shop in the cheapest clothes store even though you know they run sweat shops.

To buy, or not buy fairtrade or sustainable – it’s always someone else’s’ responsibility, someone higher up.

Eroding the personal responsibility of choice and separating yourself from your own direct actions is a feature of our everyday lives; and it has a tremendous impact on the world around us, from the environment to every point of ethical concern.

Far from being the most moral action, the literal or figurative diverting of the train is actually the most selfish way of operating; the only person it really protects is ourselves. Suddenly, we not responsible, because we are only reacting to circumstance.

I don’t believe any of us really want to live in a world where we matter as numbers before we matter as individuals, and every one and their dog is champing at the bit to make human sacrifices of the few for the sake of the many.

It is the defining characteristic of 21st century morals which obsesses over defending minorities and the vulnerable. We are always taught that it is wrong to victimise the weak. In this scenario, the few represent the weak and the many represent the strong.

It is not merely lack of action that causes evil in the world. Arguably, it is detachment, the passing of the moral buck by relying on a wider concept: numbers, the will of God, the greater good.

We can only be a healthy society if we see the world, not in groups and masses, but as individuals healthy-of-mind, who recognise that detachment from our actions erodes our humanity.


From → Animal Rights

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