Trolley morality for Sustainability?

Posted on April 26, 2011


April 22nd was Earth Day.  The first Earth Day was in the USA in 1970.  Prompted by fears of widespread environmental degradation, and promoted by Senator Gaylord Nelson, the “environmental teach-in” that engaged 20 million college students is considered by many to be the beginning of the modern environmental movement.   In 1990, Earth Day’s birthday was celebrated by a second Earth Day that led to a yearly event.  By 2009 the United Nations declared April 22nd as “International Mother Earth Day” – “recognising Earth and its ecosystems as our home”.  Boliva’s president Evo Morales declared:

Sixty years after adopting the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights], Mother Earth is now, finally, having her rights recognized

Earth Day, then, reaffirms the relationship between human rights and those of nature.  This relationship was seen in Brundtland’s introduction to Our Common Future

human survival and well-being could depend on the success in elevating sustainable development to a global ethic

Unfortunately there’s not a simple set of ethical rules for sustainability.   Fortunately, we can get some of the way by considering ethics between people.  Levinas argued that we are defined by our relationships with others.   Kant argued that we should act as though your behaviour could become a general rule.    In sustainability terms, Fagan (2009) argues that:

To live a particular lifestyle that, knowingly, impacts detrimentally on a neighbour – be that an individual living in the next house – or a country in the next Region, cannot, arguably, be tolerated. To know of poverty in the economically developing world and not use that knowledge to act to relieve it, could be considered unethical.

Bosselman widened the concept of the “other” to include the environment around us.   The implication is that social justice ethics can be expanded into the environment.   It is sometimes said that sustainability is ethics over time and space.

So let’s expand ethics to the wider “other”, and across time and space.

The “Trolley problem“, first described by the late Phillipa Foot is a useful model:

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher.  Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety.  Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?

Clearly a utilitarian view would be to flip the switch, although this then involves you in the action (and perhaps a degree of culpability).  There have been numerous variations on the Trolley problem.  The “Fat man“, for instance, describes pushing a (very) fat man in front of the trolley to stop it.   Most people would find this less acceptable (yet most they can’t explain why).  Another variation describes a surgeon – would you harvest organs from an otherwise healthy person to save five others? usually even less acceptable.  Other variations pose loops in the track; relatives on the track; railway workers versus children, and so on.

My point – there had to be one eventually – is that while there has been much exploration of such dilemmas in human morality, health etc (Foot originally posed the Trolley in a discussion on ethics of abortion), they have been little applied to sustainability.  I think this would be a useful track.

So, here’s a first go at some sustainability twists to the trolley problem:

  • what if the 5 people live in Cambodia?
  • what if it isn’t a single trolley, but lots of little ones?  (but with the same cumulative effect).
  • what if instead of a single person, it is a forest (which the trolley will destroy), on which five people are completely dependent for survival?  (what if that was 5000?)
  • what if the 5 haven’t been born yet?  (OK, not sure why, some freaky space-time trolley deal)
  • what if the forest contains the last two remaining orangutan?
  • what if the forest contains a the last of a really ugly mould, but one that locals believe has curative powers?

While these are hypothetical questions, I’d like to see more exploration of our unconscious moral grammar as applied to sustainability.   We don’t have good shorthand for this stuff.   And it matters.   Plans are advanced for the giant Xanaburi dam across the Mekong in Laos which will improve the livelihoods of 6 million in Laos, most of whom are below the poverty line.  It  will also  “threaten the livelihoods” of millions in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam through scores of fish extinctions and changed water flows.  In Cambodia’s case in particular, for those communities clinging to subsistence farming a “threatened livelihood” is very close to being tied to the railway track.    What should we think about this?  What ethical guidance do we get?  Thailand is opposed to the dam, despite planning to buy 95% of the power it generates.

Peter Singer perhaps comes closest in Famine, Affluence and Morality and The Life You Can Save.  In the latter, Singer poses a thought experiment involving a train, a child and an expensive car.  The twist is that saving the car then selling it could save a great many children.

Any thoughts much appreciated…

Posted in: ethics