Sucker’s Choice

Posted on November 26, 2011


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There’s a pair of famous ethical dilemmas (the Trolley Problem) that is presented to young philosophy students that irritates the life out of me every time I even think about it.

If you’d like to hear a Harvard professor who’s taught this dilemma for 30 years, you can watch the lecture here. Why they’re clapping is beyond me.

In the first, a trolley is headed for 5 people tied to a track. You are standing next to a switchbox, and you could save the 5 by diverting the train to another track, on which 1 person is tied. Would you do it?

In the second, you are standing next to a fat man on a bridge. Below you a speeding train heads for 5 people on the track. You could push the man next to you onto the track, stopping the train and saving the 5. Would you do it?

I’m perfectly well aware that the intent of the dilemma is to narrow choices to “a rock and a hard place” and limit all solutions for the purpose of determining motivation. I’m also perfectly aware that the difference between the two is whether one would choose to sacrifice the minority for the majority by either (1) acting at a distance or (2) acting personally to very consciously kill the one, as well as to determine at which point people enter a dilemma to act (do we consider ourselves responsible for outcomes we foresee or merely those we force by acting?)

Are we utilitarian, the dilemma tests, reducing people to numbers when numbers seem all we can control? Are we passive or active, willing or unwilling to enter the fray of outcome-altering choice? People consistently choose to flip the switch in the first dilemma, but to not do anything in the second. There is an abominable amount of literature written to explain why this is so.

So why does this mind game inspire in me something akin to rage?

Because it doesn’t exist. It’s an exercise to isolate motivation and values that gets extended into the world we actually live in, like a video game taking over reality. In a world with a multiplicity of choices we are suddenly reduced to ridiculous options and forced to choose, as if we’re all running around in some teenage dystopian novel. We’re not. The options available to intelligent people in a real world are endless, limited only by their creativity and commitment to mutual welfare. In the real world, the truly inspired are never “between a rock and a hard place” and the choice is never between “the lesser of two evils.” Too much time playing in this two-dimension world makes people act two-dimensionally.

I love reading case studies because it’s mental callisthenics. When you read the business dilemma, it appears as if only two very bad choices are available. The key is that experience and wisdom make possible third alternatives, and I love trying to predict what enterprising, intelligent leaders will choose. It’s positively inspiring. That’s why “a rock and a hard place” is referred to as the “sucker’s choice.” It’s only a dilemma for the inexperienced, the ignorant, or the self-excusing.

God doesn’t structure reality that way.

First, he never sets up conditions in which one is sacrificed for many involuntarily, and there are strict guidelines against sacrificing someone else. Ever. The mind game in which we would consider such a choice is irrelevant and destructive to a fragile internal spirit that inherently knows that it is wrong to force a sacrifice on someone else. This is actually the plan of The Adversary, and he’s the only one who plays games like that.

Second, if only destructive choices are available, the entire plan is subverted. We are placed here to learn to act as God acts, and in no universe does God limit our action to choices he would never choose. A high and holy option is always available to us. A place where no holy action could occur is a place designed by The Adversary, and once again, it’s a diabolical game.

But it’s just an exercise, right?

In what plane of existence do we exercise according to The Adversary’s rules, and what exactly are we practicing for if we do?

There are lurking dangers in playing with ideas for their entertainment value, divorced from the world of real action in which we might implement what we think we learn. The most striking is the adoption of the game’s limitation while we live and are intended to act back here in a much broader reality.

Few options boil down to this or that ugliness, like a ballot with two distasteful candidates. Every day leading up to that vote unlimited options were available to DO SOMETHING: to see the individuals on the track and to warn them, to get off the platform and stop the trolley, to rebuild new tracks on which no people are tied, to contact the driver and inform him, to make sure trolleys always have drivers, to build platforms for people to stand upon, to find mad philosophers and stop them from going about tying people to tracks.

We are here to be creative. The next time you feel you’re pushed into a corner, where moving right or left will destroy, look up. There’s another way. The Sucker’s Choice is The Adversary’s illusion. We don’t have to play that game. We are practicing for something better.

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