The Trolley Problem Writ Large

So I am teaching a course titled “Power, Privilege, and Oppression” this fall at the University of Arkansas Clinton School for Public Service, and as I am planning out the semester, I thought I might adapt one or two of my planned discussions for posts here. With the following, I try to lay out how we need to rethink our definitions of violence in order to understand the essence of oppression:

I find it helpful, in talking about violence, to start with what is allegedly its most extreme manifestation–namely, genocide. What makes a genocide? Does there have to be a deliberate effort to kill people, or can natural causes count? Before we start getting into the legal and theoretical work on genocide, let’s start with a bit of history that usually doesn’t come to mind when you think of the worst historical atrocities.

Under British colonial rule, India suffered two famines that killed millions. The first, 1876-1879, killed between 6.1 and 10.3 million. the second, 1896-1902, killed between 6.1 and 19 million, for a total of 12.2–29.3 million. These are numbers that rival or more than double the body count attributed to the Holocaust.

Most classical sociologists would not define the conditions which facilitate famine—namely, the weather—as a social fact (aside from situations of manmade climate change, in which people are responsible for changes in the weather). So can famine count as a social phenomenon? Yes. As sociologist Christopher Powell (to whose account, in Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide, I am heavily indebted) points out, the food systems upon which people rely are social phenomena. Water is stored in socially constructed reservoirs, food is stored for later use through socially constructed systems of preservation. Whether a crop failure leads to famine or not depends upon the availability and accessibility of alternate sources of food. After all, Arkansas could experience a total crop failure, but we could still get fruits from California, beef from Texas, corn from Indiana, and so on. Too, whether or not we starve may depend upon political conditions—the willingness of national government or private philanthropists to dispense with public aid to feed the hungry (or simply abstain from violence, as the people of England, Arkansas, discovered in 1931).

Famine has been used as a means of genocide. The Germans forced the Herero into the Omaheke Desert in what is now Namibia in 1904, killing 60,000 people. The Turkish government in 1915 forced Armenians into a mountainous desert, killing three quarters of these deportees. These are cases of genocide in which people were removed from access to their food sources, but the reverse has also been done—taking food from the people and starving them to death. The Stalinist government, in 1932–1933, imposed severe quotas of grain upon the farmers in Ukraine, causing between 5 and 7 million people to starve to death. This was the Holodomor, or Great Hunger. Likewise, in Ireland in 1846–1852, some one million people (an eighth of the population) died during what is popularly called the Irish Potato Famine. What tends to get left out of the story is that British colonial authorities continued food exports from Ireland during this time of famine—food was available, it just wasn’t getting to the hungry.

But back to India. So in 1875, the monsoons upon which India relies for watering its crops failed, followed by extreme rains the following that further disrupted agricultural production while also bringing on a malaria epidemic. The pattern repeated itself some twenty years later—the failure of monsoons combined with extreme rain and flooding in some parts of India.

However, the weather was not the only cause for these famines. British authorities had, a century prior to this, made India a part of the global commodities market. Therefore, rising prices across the globe also raised prices in India, pushing basic foodstuff out of reach of citizens whose relationship to food production now consisted of being “buyers.” Too, reminiscent of the American colonial experience, the British also taxed local goods in an effort to sell more British industrial products. Many natives lost land due to nonpayment of taxes, allowing such land to be appropriated by more colonial landowners. Water was essentially privatized as colonial authorities stopped investing in irrigation.

The situation was set up so that when the monsoons failed in 1876, many people suddenly had no access to food. Decreasing food production in India raised global commodity prices, meaning that food was suddenly unaffordable to most, all going to those who could pay for it. The previous three years, India had an above average wheat and rice production, but the surplus had been shipped to England, not kept in India where it may have ameliorated the famine. Traditionally, households and villages had kept grain reserves that were dished out according to networks of social obligation during times of famine, but this had been supplanted by the cash economy.

As with the Irish famine, food was actually shipped out of the famine-ravaged districts in India thanks to the new railroad installed by British authorities. From 1875 to 1877, Indian wheat exports to the United Kingdom increased almost by a factor of five. However, the Viceroy to India, Lord Lytton, insisted that there be no government relief, apparently believing that state intervention would only exacerbate conditions—a belief propounded by philosopher Adam Smith.

By 1877, families had sold their tools in an attempt to survive and thus could not take advantage of some moderate rainfall to sow emergency crops. Cholera and dysentery killed many, and people left the country for the city, hoping to find relief. However, Sir Richard Temple was appointed to claim down on any relief efforts that might be organized locally. He required that those who wanted relief be forced into work camps. The amount dispensed was only one pound of rice, or 1,627 calories. At the Buchenwald concentration camp, inmates received a food allowance of 1,750 calories. The death toll in the camps was astonishing. But Temple went further, instituting the Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877, which imposed prison sentences on those organizing private relief donations, out of a concern that any relief would interfere with the grain market. Mortality in the work camps was a rate of 94 percent yearly. Temple accused the inmates of choosing starvation over “submission to even simple and reasonable orders.” Grain riots erupted across India, but in 1879–1880, the government conducted a series of raids to collect taxes that were due during the famine years.

By the 1890s, the government had made some small reforms to try to prevent a recurrence. However, the same pattern repeated itself. And even more people died.

So here is where we get into the definition of genocide. Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europegenos (race or tribe in Greek) and cide (killing in Latin). He wrote that “genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation… [but] is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”

Genocide is defined legally in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part ; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Scholars have long debated the applicability of this definition. One of the big problems is the issue of genocidal intent, of “deliberately inflicting” conditions calculated to destroy. Another is the problem of group identity being limited to national, ethical, racial, or religious groups “as such.” What about gender and gender identity, political convictions, etc.?

Scholars have, therefore, sought to develop other definitions. Emphasizing the fact that genocide typically occurs in a situation of armed conflict, Martin Shaw, in What Is Genocide? (2nd edition), defines it thusly: “A form of violent social conflict or war between armed power organizations that aim to destroy civilian social groups, and those groups and other actors who resist this destruction.” However, the problems with the concept have led some scholars to abandon it. Historian Christian Gerlach (Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World) prefers to think of mass atrocities within “extremely violent societies” or “formations where various population groups become victims of massive physical violence, in which, acting together with the organs of the state, diverse social groups participate for a multitude of reasons.”

Sociologist Christopher Powell proposes that “we understand genocide sociologically as directed not just at individuals or even groups but also at social structures or figurations and, further, that we define it critically as a relation of violent obliteration, a relation that involves the production of difference through the performance of mass violence.”

Powell’s definition, however, demands that we define violence. So let’s start with this question: What is the fundamental difference between a terrorist poisoning a city’s water supply and a local government choosing to get municipal water from a source known to be poisoned?

Slavoj Žižek, in Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, differentiates between “subjective” and “objective” violence. Subjective violence has a subject. If I suddenly hit you, you can easily identify me as the perpetrator of violence and you as its victim. As Zizek says, “subjective violence is experienced as such against the background of a non-violent zero level. It is seen as a perturbation of the ‘normal,’ peaceful state of things.” However, objective violence is “invisible since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjectively violent.”

Think of it this way. I can take a gun and rob you of $50. We would agree that this is an act of violence. However, I can also, as a city official, decide that we will be providing impure water to our citizens, thus forcing you to spend $50 on some kind of water purifying equipment in order to remain safe. That achieves the same end, subjectively (you are minus fifty dollars each way), but we don’t tend to classify the latter as an act of violence. It’s the way the system operates.

As James Tyner observes in Violence in Capitalism: Devaluing Life in an Age of Responsibility, “The determination of violence, especially criminal violence, is neither neutral or objective.” He adds, “What if, for the moment, we consider violence to be any action or inaction that results in injury, maldevelopment, or death? In other words, what if we moved beyond an individually oriented and biologically premised understanding of violence to consider how certain policies, practices, and programs may have the same consequences for human survivability?” (Damien Short makes a similar argument in Redefining Genocide: Settler Colonialism, Social Death and Ecocide–namely, that we tend to condemn ecological destruction carried out in wartime, such as what the United States did to Vietnam, while giving a pass to much greater “peacetime” ecocidal violence.)

The important thing to understand is that violence has no inherent reality but is, rather, an abstraction, that how violence is constituted correlates to the social relations of any given society. Consider this—the Roman Catholic Church considers a piece of unleavened bread, properly consecrated by a priest, to be the literal body of Christ. In the Middle Ages, rumors regularly spread that Jews, those so-called “killers of Christ,” would break into churches to steal the consecrated wafers and take them home to stick needles into them in some kind of cruel reenactment of the crucifixion. Many Jews were attacked, even lynched, on the suspicion of engaging in this kind of activity because that was considered an act of violence against an actual person, since the bread was the literal body of Christ. However, if today you were to ring up the police and explain that you suspected your Jewish neighbor of sticking needles into a piece of bread, you would probably not get the same response.

Or consider cases like that of Ariel Castro, who kidnapped three women in Cleveland, Ohio, and kept them in his basement for ten years, where he raped them repeatedly. In the pre-Civil War American South, he would not have been considered a criminal so long as these women were defined as black and he had the proper deed of purchase.

So what characteristics of our society shape how we define violence?

In the case of India, we see the definite failure to define the famine as violence, largely because the logic of the market was understood as the foundation of society, while violence is typically defined as an exception to society. Thus, as Tyner notes, a distinction is made in market societies between killing and letting die—when, in fact, both killing and letting due result in the same end, the death of individuals and groups.

This is important to realize because many of those who would claim that we now live in a post-racial society are emphasizing the relative lack of specifically subjective violence against various racial and ethnic groups. We will be highlighting in this class some of these forms of violence:

*Lynching, murder carried out by groups outside the bounds of the law, sometimes in the form of a public spectacle, for which people were rarely punished.

*Night riding, or attempts to run African Americans off through violent intimidation, usually for purposes of chasing them from particular industries or off land so that the poor whites carrying out this violence might take advantage of them.

*Racial cleansing, or the historical expulsion of African Americans, en masse, from certain communities, counties, or even whole regions of the nation, or from certain neighborhoods.

These are all easily cases of subjective violence. However, as we will study, much of the violence that is perpetrated against people of color in this country takes the form of “letting die” rather than direct killing. Consider the following:

*Gentrification. This serves as a modern counterpart to racial cleansing. Municipal and business leaders decide to revitalize a part of town, and if successful, if they can draw in new investment to the area, what happens is that local property values become too great for the the people who were living there in the first place to remain, and thus they end up having to move elsewhere. The same end is achieved as an racial cleansing, but without the subjective violence.

*Economic participation. We are a market economy, and participation in the economy, through your employment and your spending of money, constitutes a great deal of how you are defined, both to yourself and to others. Racist vigilantes knew this and sought to exclude African Americans from the economy. Nowadays, there other, more subtle ways to exclude people from the economy. Employment applications that ask you to note any felony convictions are one, given that certain racial and ethnic groups are much more heavily policed. Removal of resources from schools leaves certain groups without the educational background needed to enter the economy in a meaningful way.

*Excessive policing of minority communities, and excessive police violence against minorities in general, illustrates some characteristics comparable to the old lynch mentality. Moreover, the use of video technology to capture these events reproduces, if in an unintended fashion, the phenomenon of spectacle lynching.

It is also important to highlight here, in our discussion of “letting die,” the phenomenon of social death. After all, we are social creatures, the products of various overlapping communities, and our identity is very much a function of our participation in these communities. You might think of a community as a group that shares what Tor Nørretranders in The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness down to Size, calls a “tree of talking.” What Nørretranders means is this: If you want to communicate an idea, you typically summarize your varied experiences more and more into one concrete expression–like all the branches leading into the trunk of a tree, all your varied thoughts become more refined into one word or idea–and when you communicate that singular image, it does the reverse in the head of the person you’re communicating with, expanding outward. For example, if I want to communicate with you the relationship I had with an older male mentor, I might say that “he was like a father to me.” When I say that, maybe you get images of kindness, gentleness, firmness in your head. Now, your own experience with a father might be completely different, so that what results are recollections of abuse and terror, in which case we have had a miscommunication.

Social groups for the most part share a tree of talking. There is the slang used by groups of friends, the expressions that might be common regionally, the inside jokes you might have with your spouse, the technical jargon you might use on the job site, the literary allusions you might drop at a cocktail party, the pop culture references everyone trades in, or the ceremonies of national or religious belonging. You feel at home when you can take things for granted. Just think how much communication breaks down when you have to stop and explain some reference or another. I mean, if you’re lucky, that’s all that happens, and you don’t end up like poor Marianne Sinclair locked out of her house on a snowy night because her father thought she was in love with the disgraced priest Gösta Berling, am I right?

Did our tree of talking not quite gel right there? (Apparently, not everyone reads Swedish novels.)

The philosopher Claudia Card writes, in Confronting Evils: Terrorism, Torture, Genocide: “Social vitality exists though relationships, contemporary and intergenerational, that create contexts and identities that give meaning and shape to our lives. Some of those relationships are with kin, friends, and coworkers. Others are less personal and mediated by basic social institutions—economic, political, religious, educational, and so on. Loss of social vitality comes with the loss of such connections.”

This loss of social vitality is what Card calls social death. Such cases of extreme violence like genocide certainly create social death by very physically robbing the survivors of the society they once enjoyed. But you don’t need mass murder to create social death. The experience of slavery cut people off from their ancestors, from their immediate families, from a cultural context in which their lives made sense. In the United States, the policy, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of removing Native American children from their reservation homes to various boarding schools was also a cause of social death, for the children returned unable to speak native languages and without an understanding of the culture of which they had been a part. Think of immigration policies that result in the deportation of someone who came to the U.S. as a child and knows only this culture, now being sent to a country with which she has no familiarity.

And it is in a focus upon “letting die” that we can draw commonalities between race/racism as a form of oppression and the experience of other groups. Think of non-heterosexual people, in many parts of the world, being forced to remain in the closet and denied community. Think of a lack of accommodation for the disabled that prevents them from participating fully in society. I once tutored a woman who had cerebral palsy; she could walk and talk with some minor difficulty, and she had a great mind, but when she was a child, the school system shunted her into a “classroom” with children who had severe mental handicaps, thus depriving her of the possibility of leaning anything, much less participating in the wider life of the school. Our treatment of the disabled has more often than not been a case of “letting die.”

Now, one tool that philosophers like to use to discuss killing versus letting die is the trolley problem. There are many different versions of this problem. The original form is this:

You are standing at a switch that would allow you to direct an oncoming trolley onto one of two tracks. You see the trolley heading down a track that would have it running into three people, but if you pull the switch to direct it onto the other track, it will kill only one person. Do you pull the switch?

There are many different versions of this problem to explore ideas of action or inaction or the attempt to apply a specific value to specific lives. For example, what if tied to one track are three old people, while on the other are three young people? Do you sacrifice those who have already lived full lives on the assumption that young lives mean more because they supposedly have more to look forward to? What about three jobless crack addicts versus one Harvard scientist? You can play with this many different ways.

Now, in connection with the trolley problem, I want to give you a definition of evil created by philosopher Claudia Card: “Evil is any reasonably foreseeable, intolerable harm created/facilitated/perpetuated by inexcusable wrongdoing.” Let’s break this down:

*Reasonable foreseeable: We can predict what can happen, on the basis of historical knowledge or personal experience or an understanding of how things work. The consequence does not have to be perfectly foreseeable, just reasonably so.

*Intolerable harm: We might call this harm that indelibly shapes an individual, that causes a significant disruption in the comfort with which he/she experiences society at large. Victims of crimes speak of losing their sense of trust. Card gives as examples: lack of access to non-toxic food, water, or air; lack of freedom from prolonged and severe pain, humiliation, or debilitating fear; prolonged inability to move one’s limbs or to stand, sit, or lie down; lack of affective bonds with others; and the inability to make choices and act on at least some of them effectively. In short, intolerable harm robs us of the ability to lead decent lives and to have deaths that are decent.

*Created, facilitated, perpetuated: that is, not just through direct action but also through inaction whose result of intolerable harm can be reasonably foreseen.

*Inexcusable wrongdoing: Lack of a moral excuse. Moral excuses can be highly debatable. Indeed, that is one of the things the trolley problem is designed to elicit. The decision to save three lives over one life would be a moral excuse, even if we might detest the utilitarian calculations as they relate to human life. However, shunting the trolley from a perfectly empty track onto an occupied track would be morally inexcusable.

So here is the image I want to leave you with. You know that our society produces inexcusable deaths. Just from the perspective of how official policies are enacted, we can see direct killing, such as with the many, many videos of people, particularly black men, being gunned down by police, but we can also see the process of letting die, as with the Flint water crisis, the epidemic of child poverty and malnutrition, and more. So we, collectively as a society, are standing at the switch and we can see the trolley coming down the track. It is reasonably foreseeable that the trolley will cause intolerable harm to this group. These are the people are society fails: the poor, immigrants, women, the disabled, the non-white. And remember, Card’s definition allows for evil to be perpetrated by inaction as much as by action, so doing nothing here is engaging in an act of inexcusable wrongdoing, unless we have some kind of moral excuse. And so the question is:

Knowing what we know, why aren’t we, as a society, pulling that lever? What do we imagine must lie on the other track? And what does our valuation of what’s on the other track say about us?


One comment

  1. Wonderful analysis. But anytime the trolley problem gets mentioned, what comes to my mind is this comic:

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