Voting and the Trolley Problem

Greta Christina

Elections are like the trolley problem—and voting is like pulling the lever.

If you’re not familiar with the trolley problem, it’s a philosophical thought experiment about ethical dilemmas. A trolley car has lost its brakes and is hurtling down a track where five people are stuck. You can pull a lever and divert the trolley to another track so the five people don’t die—but one person is stuck on that other track. Do you pull the lever and kill the one person? Or do you do nothing and let the five people die?

Voting is like pulling the lever.

In elections, we rarely get to choose between one amazing candidate and one monster. Political candidates are never perfect. They have all the usual human flaws, as well as some flaws particular to politics. Even when we admire a candidate and think he or she is mostly doing great, we’re almost always going to disagree with the candidate about something. If we’re voting on an initiative or referendum, we might have the luxury of an easy decision (the recent election in Ireland, where voters decided on whether people with uteruses should be forced to donate their organs for nine months, leaps to mind). But when we’re voting for people, we don’t have that luxury.

And in big elections with high stakes, such as elections for senator or congressperson, governor or president, this is even more true. The more power someone has, the more power he or she has to do greater harm. Some of this comes from political corruption or damaged political systems. But some of it comes from the nature of decision-making. Think about difficult choices you’ve had to make, choices where there was no good answer and you had to decide which of two evils was the lesser. Now imagine having the kind of power where your difficult choices affect thousands or millions. There is no way to have great political power and not cause at least some real harm.

We are always going to be angry, legitimately angry, at political candidates. And the higher they are in the ranks, the more we’ll have to be angry about. So unless we refuse to vote at all, we have to vote for someone who’s done harm and is likely to do more. If we won’t, we take a serious risk of letting someone get into office who will do even more harm—and who will do less good or no good at all.

Some people facing this dilemma refuse to vote. Or they vote for candidates with zero chance of winning. The case I’m making here, the analogy I’m making, is that refusing to vote is like not pulling the lever on the trolley. And voting for a candidate with no chance of winning is like pulling a lever that you know isn’t connected to the trolley and isn’t going to change its track.

It can be hard to pull the lever and watch the one person die. You take action and a person dies; his or her blood is on your hands. It can be tempting to think that inaction doesn’t count as action, that the blood of five people isn’t on your hands when you fail to take action to save them. But that’s a false perception. Failure to take action counts as action. That’s especially true when the action we can take is relatively easy and costs us very little. If we see a house on fire and don’t call the fire department, if we see a car accident and don’t call the paramedics, we are responsible. If people die, it’s at least partly on us.

We can’t fix every problem we see the minute we see it. We have to prioritize, do triage, decide what we have time and energy for and what’s the best use of our skills. But calling the fire department or the paramedics takes very little out of us. And voting doesn’t take much more. Unless you’re a target of voter disenfranchisement (which does happen in the United States; there is a well-documented campaign on the part of conservatives to make voting harder for likely progressive voters), voting is little more than an inconvenience. It doesn’t take much more effort than pulling a lever or checking a box.

Some people argue that they shouldn’t have to make this choice. They don’t want to participate in a system where they have to kill either one person or five. But that’s not an option. Not here and now. Refusing to vote doesn’t do anything to stop the system. In fact, the opposite is true. The widespread feeling of disconnection from government, the belief that government is inherently dirty and all candidates are equally bad, is one of the things that keeps government dysfunctional. In fact, in the United States, that belief has been deliberately perpetuated by powerful people and organizations with a strong interest in maintaining the status quo (since low voter turnout skews conservative, while high turnout skews progressive). Elected officials have little motivation to work for the benefit of people who don’t vote and never will.

If you don’t like this system, fine. I don’t, either. Work to build a new system of trolley tracks that people don’t get stuck on. And in the meantime, pull the damn lever. It doesn’t stop you from working to fix the system. But refusing to pull the lever doesn’t help. It might make you feel pure, above it all, disconnected from a broken trolley track system that kills people. But in the name of preserving your own good feelings of supposed ethical purity, you’ve let five people die.

Real-world ethics often involve hard choices. And by “hard choices,” I don’t mean choices that are ethically obvious but demand personal sacrifice. I mean choosing the least harm or the greater good.

In studies done on the trolley problem, the overwhelming majority of people say they’d pull the lever. They’d kill the one person to keep five from dying. If that’s true for you, then register—and vote.

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is an author, blogger at The Orbit, and speaker. Her latest book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).