Non-Attachment: The Trolley Problem

A logician’s thoughts during a meditation sitting.

Time for some moral philosophy. The trolley problem is a classic dilemma to question ethical decision making.

Consider a trolley that is bound to go either straight to divert once. The trolley cannot stop. There are five people tied to the track in front of the trolley. Tied to the sidetrack, however, is just a single individual. A person is tasked to decide whether to pull the lever and hence go to the sidetrack. Death is inevitable.

Let’s say the decision-maker is not a sadist and tries to decide in a morally correct way. Being responsible for another person’s death is considered bad in most moral decision making.

In this problem, one often tends to use the information available and make a rational decision: one versus five deaths — so better go with less damage. That is the utilitarian approach as of J.S. Mill.

There are more approaches regarding whether to take action at all, the moral obligation to do or not do so and its implications. One can argue that doing harm is worse than letting harm happen. But is wilfully taking responsibility worse than wilfully not taking responsibility?

Other strategies and variations of the problem focus on measuring and comparing the value of lives. Imagine there is more information available about the people tied to the rails. The single person is a healthy baby, recently born, with a life expectancy of more than a hundred years. The five people are all seniors and above 80.

In essence, the information available on these people may change the perception of right and wrong.

From a logician’s point of view, when no information is given about the people on the tracks, every reality is possible. And with every reality, the perception of which group to kill is most ethical may or may not change.

Schroedinger’s cat is said to be dead and alive at the same time, just because the observer does not know any better at the current moment of observation.

Arguably, in a logical sense, the trolley problem provides the same paradoxical structure: without any further information about the people, it is equally right and wrong at the same time to kill anyone of these groups.

Enter Vipassana.

Vipassana is a meditation technique and in its pure form does not teach any moral philosophy. According to S. N. Goenka, this particular meditation seeks to address and ultimately relieve cravings and aversions of the meditator.

A craving is a desire so strong, it diverts the attention away from the current moment. For example, constantly fantasizing about the past, like wishing back the happy days of marriage. Or an addiction that cannot be overcome.

Likewise, an aversion is a strong fear that skews reality towards negativity and clouds the presence of mind. Like an important upcoming exam or meeting. It’s enough having to experience it. Though easier said than done, there is no benefit in spoiling the current moment by fearing what is not yet there.

Let’s now assume the deciding entity in the trolley problem is a Vipassana meditator. What can go wrong and what is ethical?

With this mindset, there are two decisions to take. Interestingly, the first decision does not regard the six people on the tracks. It does not measure and compare the value of people’s lives. Instead, it values one life above all. Your own.

The only peculiarly wrong things to do are fearing to make a wrong decision and similarly, wishing to categorically make the right decision. With such an aversion to a wrong decision or a craving to do right, you hurt your future thoughts and reality most.

Observe yourself in the moment of pressure. Is there an ethical decision that you truly believe in? Are you a utilitarian, a logical physicist, or a religious believer? The important bit is to be content with the decision.

With regard to your mental hygiene, it is most undesirable to stack up negativity or hope towards the decision in front of you. This is the idea of non-attachment.

Whatever the decision is in the end, as long as it is decided while being content, it is the right decision for the decision-maker.

Wait, what? Did you just deem the applied ethics irrelevant?

No. I defined right and wrong subjective to the individual in charge.

The utilitarian kills the single person. The absolutist does not react and runs over five. The logician says the lack of information equalizes the moral implications of the decision branches. And eventually acts somehow.

Whatever choice is made can be wrong and right at the same time, given an infinite accord of ethics. But the mindset in which the decision-maker acts can be subjectively right regardless of the problem.

The foremost action is to willingly put the decision-maker’s mental hygiene before the right and wrongs of the decision in front.

Action without craving and aversion makes the future a more desirable one. It is easier to look back at the negativity of the past without the sour aftertaste of doubt.

Student of life. Meditation newcomer. Yoga enthusiast. Cloud security engineer and language lover.

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