From Skittles to Syrians and What the Trolley Problem Has to Do With it

From Skittles to Syrians and What the Trolley Problem Has to Do With it September 26, 2016

What do Skittles have to do with Syrians, and with Trolleys?

CCO Public Domain, via Pixabay
CCO Public Domain, via Pixabay

In my Ethics class last week, we discussed the well-known “Trolley Problem.” This is a thought experiment often used to exemplify the dynamics of moral calculations (originally written by British philosopher Philippa Foote). It raises the question of whether a consequentialist (or “utilitarian”) approach to ethics is preferable to a rule-based or duty-based (“deontological”) approach.

The thought experiment goes like this:  Suppose there are five people trapped on a train track. A train (or “trolley,” for the Brits) is speeding toward them. You’re standing by a lever which could divert the train to another track, avoiding the five potential victims. But on the other track you see one person similarly trapped. Switch the lever, and you save the five. But that one person is doomed. Would you do it?  Would you actively make a change to apparent destiny, thereby minimizing suffering on the whole–but causing immense suffering to one?

Or consider a stronger variation of the Trolley Problem.  The train is heading for those five potential victims, but this time you are stranding on a bridge overlooking the oncoming train, and you notice a large man standing next to you. If you push the large man over the train, his weight would (let’s just assume, OK?) be sufficient to stop the train from killing the five, though it would certainly kill him.

Click on the image for a nice summary of the Trolley Problem, via BBC
Click on the image for a brief summary of the Trolley Problem, via BBC

The Trolley Problem, and all sorts of newer variations of it, have been used not only in philosophy experiments, but in psychology experiments, too. How does ethical conviction and moral sensibilities change under slightly differing circumstances? (e.g. the impersonal flip of a switch or push of a lever versus the very personal, tangible pushing an unsuspecting, innocent man over a bridge).

Perhaps not surprisingly, most people would be willing to flip the lever, but not to push the man over the bridge.

The Trolley Problem has been critiqued for being laughably unrealistic and too chuckle-inducing to be of much serious use for ethical reflection. As one Atlantic essay asks, When’s the last time you’ve even ridden a trolley?

This is why I found it intriguing that recently an author for the Dallas News compared Trump’s Skittles meme to the Trolley Problem, noting that both situations raise the question of “one death versus many.”

If you’ve been under a cave, the Skittles meme (via a Tweet by Donald Trump Jr) reads: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

The analogy is meant to conjure up fears about taking in Muslim refugees from Syria. It’s supposed to be a common-sense angle on the dangers of reckless hospitality to strangers. If you wouldn’t dare touch those Skittles, for fear of the poisonous ones, then surely you wouldn’t approve of taking in refugees, for fear of the terrorists or potential terrorists among them. Don’t you know that just one or two–or three–can kill you?

So yes, the Skittles Meme works at least somewhat like the Trolley problem: it would have us consider whether a “switch of the lever” to save thousands of Syrian refugees might also be resulting in doom for innocent people (i.e. American citizens, us).

But there are several obvious problems with the Skittles analogy.

We don’t know that any of the Syrian refugees we accept have terroristic intentions or will end up being terrorists. (This is quite unlike the Skittles analogy, which tells us that three of them are in fact poisonous.  So we’re being asked to make a jump from Skittles to Syrians, and then make a moral calculation based on mere hypothetical and (likely false) presumptions of guilt.

Stephen Colbert put it much better than I can. Aside from the bad grammar in Trump Jr.s’ first sentence:

“Also, it turns out the math is wrong. He’s saying three out of a little bowl of refugees would kill you. But last week, the conservative Cato Institute did the math and found out the odds of an American being killed by a refugee in a terror attack is one in 3.64 billion. So that’s not three poison Skittles in a bowl; that’s three poison Skittles in one and a half Olympic-size swimming pools of Skittles”

Also, consider what would happen if the United States refused by policy to accept any refugees. What is the potential cost down the line of taking a hard-line policy of exclusion, rather than a welcoming policy of hospitality to those in desperate need? How many more terrorists with bad-will against us might such a hard-line exclusivist approach actually create?

But there’s a still bigger point to consider. The Trolley Problem is not so much about self-preservation, but raises the utilitarian question of the “greatest good for the greatest number,” and asks us to consider whether the quantity of outcomes (i.e. number of deaths) outweighs the quality of an action.

The Skittles Meme appeals to fear and self-preservation, and we shouldn’t make moral calculus purely on that basis.

From the vantage of Christian theology (Christianity being also the stated religion of Donald Trump), utilitarian-like objective calculations may have their place, but they ultimately defer to the deeper principles, to the core of the matter. What does it mean to be a person who embraces the other, who overcomes fear of self-preservation in order to consider the needs of those in desperate situations?

Does perfect love really cast out fear?



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