The Trolley Problem

The sun was down, and I was bundled in a fuzzy blanket. New Year’s Eve was tomorrow. The big crystalline ball with elegant geometric triangular patterns and flashing lights that stood over New York City on TV would drop, welcoming this year called 2020 that nobody knew anything about yet.  

But tonight was just movie night. My mom, my brother, my sister, and I gathered on the family room couch to watch Star Wars. The blaring trumpets of the theme song blasted, and, like a gaggle of totally normal people watching Star Wars, we decided to completely ignore the movie and talk about the trolley problem: a trolley is running, and the track splits into two tracks, and people are tied to the train tracks; if the trolly goes down one track, it will run over a single person, but if it goes down the other, it will run over five people. You have the lever to choose which track the trolley goes across. Do you let it run over five people, or one person? 

“I stop the trolley,” I told my sister with a shrug.  

“You can’t stop the trolley. It won’t stop.” She countered. 

“Ok, then I push the emergency services button.”  

“There is no emergency services button.” 

“Fine. I call 911.” 

“There’s no phone.” 

“I use my iPhone.” 

“There’s no service.” 

“How do you know!” 

To be honest, I forget how my brother contributed. Either he gave a legitimate scholarly-sounding answer about running over a single person, rather than the group of people, or he performed a mini-TED talk about how the trolley problem is an inadequate means of gauging human morality. Maybe both, in that order.  

However, despite his generous decision to approach the question without being a menace to society, my sister grew increasingly impatient with my lack of a straight answer, but it was too late now. It wasn’t about a bunch of imaginary people tied to the tracks anymore. It was the principle. I felt like a butterfly in a jar, headbutting a wall no matter what direction I flew in. Sure, the trolley situation was imaginary to begin with, but it became more absurd every time my sister added details to corral me into picking one of the two correct answers. Now I was fully invested in a game much bigger than the trolley problem: an ancient game called “do the opposite of what your older sibling wants you to do”.  

“I untie the people on the tracks,” I try. 

“You can’t untie them. The rope is too tight.” 

“I use a knife.” 

“You don’t have a knife.” 

“I use something else.” 

“You don’t have anything to untie them.” 

“You’re just making stuff up now! In real life, there would be more than two options!” 

“But it’s a hypothetical problem!” 

“Right, so why can’t I use a knife?” 

“Because there are two options in the hypothetical situation!” 

“Why are these people even tied to the tracks? Who tied them to the tracks?” 

Perhaps I didn’t learn anything on this night, but the debate helped me articulate my beliefs on optimism vs. cynicism, I suppose. Sometimes people have beliefs without knowing how to explain them, or even knowing they have beliefs. I discovered I was an optimist that night. 

 I’m not a fan of debating, but this was an exception. It was one of the few debates in my life I ever enjoyed. Like author Mary Karr in her story “God Shopping,” I tend to be a cynical wise-ass about these things…well, not about religion–just about philosophy, and about the more academic side of ethical stuff. I went to an up-tight, competitive high school, and by competitive, I mean nobody talked about parties, or boys, or even their favorite food. At my high school, most people’s idea of “fun” was sitting around talking about SAT scores, economic politics and how they were all gonna die if they didn’t get into Harvard. If they talked about the latest movies, it was to lecture you about how it was all a metaphor for the existential dread of humanity living in the infinite void, or something like that – anything that sounded deep. To say you were smart enough to find the objective answer to the trolley problem would have been like my school’s version of saying you had the trendiest clothes. Needless to say, these brain-measuring contests got old real fast. Maybe that’s why, on that night, giving the least intelligent answer possible to the trolley problem invigorated me. The lose-lose scenario of the question made me finally understand something I always felt deep down, but never acted on: My belief that just because something is negative and depressing, doesn’t make it smart.  

A belief can rattle around in your head and heart for a long time, but sometimes it doesn’t feel real until it comes out of your mouth. I was supposed to prove my intelligence by being angsty, and running over some imaginary people. Well, I just didn’t care.  

And so, I decided to top my argument off by showing my sister my cool animals list; this is a list I made in my free time, because I’m an animal nerd. I scoured the internet learning about the world’s strangest animals and collected a bunch of educational article links on the notes app on my phone. 

One was about the Malabar giant squirrel, a squirrel species that lives in woodlands in India. It’s about the size of a ferret with purple, blue and orange fur. Another was about a baby zebra found in Kenya, born with a condition called pseudomelanism, causing it to have spots instead of stripes. There was also a species of armadillo called the pink fairy armadillo, an armadillo with a shell which, as the name would suggest, is pink.  

I guess, if this debate between me and my sister was a court case, this is the part where you could bang the gavel and say: “Objection, irrelevant!” 

That’s fair, because how do a bunch of mutant animals connect to the trolley problem? 

Well, we live in a world containing giant rainbow squirrels and polka-dot zebras; the trolley problem can feel so bleak, because it simplifies morality into two horrible options that both involve people getting run over. However, that isn’t how life works. I believe there’s never just two options. The world is so much stranger than that. In other words, if squirrels can be rainbow-colored, then I can stop the trolley, damnit! 

Admittedly, the argument didn’t really go anywhere. It was one of those debates that ended with a playful eyeroll and an: “Ok, whatever,” and back to watching Star Wars we went.  

My goal was to feel pride after the debate, and the satisfaction of pissing off my sister, and don’t get me wrong, of course I did, but the last thing I expected to feel after making my stubborn case was gratitude. And yet, as I sat there, bathing in the flashing lights and clashing of lightsabers on TV, I felt thankful that real life isn’t like the trolley problem. I felt blessed with the gift of options.  

I vowed to take that feeling with me into the new year. No matter what challenges I faced. At the time, I thought facing challenges in 2020 would mean dealing with my classmates, who weren’t very lively…but that turned out to be false. The world is so much stranger than that.