The Trolley Dilemma: Do We Switch the Train From Track 1 to Track 2?

Philosophers have a thought experiment known as “The Trolley Dilemma” that is illustrated by this diagram.

Imagine there is a trolley or train coming down the track and below it on the track, in this diagram, five people are tied to the track who will be killed by the train.  But between the train and where the five people are tied to Track 1, the lower track in this diagram, there is a fork in the tracks and a switch, and you are standing at the switch and you could pull the switch to divert the train to Track 2, the upper track in this diagram, to avoid having the train run over the five people tied to Track 1 and save their lives.  Unfortunately, however, there is a different person tied to Track 2 who will be killed if you pull the switch and who would not have been killed if you did not intervene.  So you would be responsible for that person’s death whereas you could argue you would not be responsible for the deaths of the five people on Track 1.  Do you pull the switch?

This is figuratively what we have done with COVID.  The train of COVID was coming down the tracks and it was going to kill some people from COVID if we did nothing. So we decided to intervene with our lockdown response to divert the train to Track 2 to avoid those COVID deaths. But we forgot—or more accurately, refused to acknowledge—that there were people tied to Track 2 who were harmed, and in some cases killed, by that decision.

The tables below shows the choices we had and still have between Track 1 and Track 2, as we have calculated them in the other posts in this series (posts a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h).  The numbers between Track 1 and Track 2 are normalized to one person on Track 1 whose COVID death our policies averted (from the 200,000 COVID deaths we are estimating may be averted by the lockdowns).  (So in the table for Track 2 we have fractional people; if you do not like to think of fractional people you could multiply the numbers in both tables by 10 or 100 or 1,000.)

Which track do you think involved more harm?

Did we cause more harm than we prevented by switching the train from Track 1 to Track 2?

If Track 2 involved more harm, was it ethical to pull that switch and have the train run over the people tied to Track 2 instead of allowing it to run over the one person tied to Track 1?

Now that we know what these numbers are, is it ethical to continue to pull that switch and continue to pursue the lockdown approach and continue to run over the people tied to Track 2?

It is important to emphasize again that none of these bad outcomes on Track 2 were caused by COVID—they were caused by our response to COVID.  We did not have to take the approach we took.  We could have educated people about their actual risk of death if they become infected with SARS-Cov-2, and then let them make their own decisions about whether they want to isolate themselves to reduce their risk of being infected, wear a mask, etc.  That is the approach Sweden took, and they had fewer deaths per capita than us and had almost none of the other collateral damage we suffered of increased unemployment, depression, suicides, and general unhappiness.

My moral code says it cannot be justified to cause 19.3% of the population to become clinically depressed in order to extend life by 1 day on average.  It should also be noted that the people we have imposed the sacrifices on are not the people at risk of dying from COVID.  So we ordered some people to sacrifice to benefit others.

In fact, we decided to kill some people, almost all of them young or middle aged, by driving them to suicide or drug or alcohol deaths, in order to extend the lives of other people, almost all of them old and in poor health and with little life expectancy left.  All of the costs listed were entirely predictable and were in fact predicted, so we decided as a society to inflict those harms in order to save the lives of other persons from COVID.*

One of the worst parts is that when the people we have killed or harmed who were tied to Track 2 object to the decision to harm them to try to save the lives of some elderly people from death by COVID, we self-righteously scream at them that they are selfish.  When people have lost their jobs or their businesses because their restaurants were ordered closed, they are shouted down that they have no right to complain when others are dying of COVID.  The same happens when parents or university students complain that schools are closed and they or their children are being denied an education and the right to simply live their lives.  The millions we have driven into major depression mostly don’t object or complain because they are too beaten down at this point to object and afraid that if they object people will like them even less than they do now.  The people who have killed themselves of course are no longer around to object and those contemplating killing themselves are too beaten down to object.

I am here to say that the people tied to Track 2 that we decided to run over by diverting the train from Track 1 have every right to object.  Their lives are every bit as valuable as the elderly who are dying, like all of us will die, from, in this case, pneumonia caused by a natural virus

I would not have pulled that train switch.  I think it was immoral to do so.  Knowing what we know now, I would not continue to keep that switch pulled.  I think even more clearly it is immoral to continue to keep that switch pulled.

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* Looking at this table it seems pretty obvious to me that the outcomes on Track 2 are worse than those on track 1.  And these harms were predictable.  We knew the lockdowns would cause massive unemployment.  We knew the social isolation we were mandating and the unemployment would lead to massive increases in depression and suicides.  We obviously knew we were impairing education and harming young people by closing their schools and universities. And the experts, although perhaps not the public, knew at the very beginning of this that the infection fatality rate was less than 1% and probably less than 0.5%, so the number of deaths we have had is not much of a surprise and even if we thought the restrictions would nip COVID in the bud and we would have almost no COVID deaths the number of deaths prevented would only have been about 5 times the 200,000 I am estimating here, and therefore the harms of our policy would still have exceeded the benefits.  And very soon into the spring lockdowns it was very clear the policies were not going to eliminate COVID deaths, so at that point the most you could hope for is maybe the restrictions would prevent 600,000 COVID deaths or three times the number in Track 1.  Again, it should have been obvious at that point that the harms would have vastly exceeded the benefits of preventing those deaths.  So why did we persist in our lockdown approach and persist in pulling the switch and running over the people tied to Track 2?

I think the answer is human psychology. We were faced here with two bad choices. People would die from COVID or people would die from suicide and have their lives ruined for a period of time with clinical depression.  We were faced with a choice between bad and worse, not bad and good.  We are not good at facing that.  We have all been raised on movies where the good guy beats astronomical odds to escape and save the day.  We hoped against hope that somehow that would happen here, and we have kept hoping even to this day, when the evidence is very clear that it has not happened and will not happen and that our approach has been a disaster and caused vastly more harm than it has prevented.

We need to be adults and realize that sometimes bad things happen and the best thing to do then is move on and try not to make things worse.