The hospital, the trolley and political ethics

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Trolley problemIn its decision about the redevelopment of the Collingwood General & Marine Hospital, Collingwood Council is evidently taking the track less travelled, trolleyology-wise. Seen as an ethical issue, our council has chosen to act against the greater good.

Trolleyology is the somewhat humourous name given to philosophical intellectual exercises or thought problems about our ethics and ethical choices. As Wikipedia describes it, the basic problem (and there are many, many variants) is simple:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

I first wrote about the “trolley problem” back in 2014. I’ve since been reading about it and learning more about what the answers say about our morals and ethics. My current reading is Would You Kill the Fat Man? by David Edmonds (Princeton University press, 2014). Edmonds takes the reader through a wide range of trolley scenarios – the title derives from one of them – and elaborates on the ethical nature of each.

But let’s stick to the base scenario: one person versus five. A minority versus the majority. As Wikipedia also points out, “The trolley problem has been the subject of many surveys in which approximately 90% of respondents have chosen to kill the one and save the five.” And yet, contrary to that statistic, Collingwood Council – or more specifically, the Block of Seven – has chosen not to pull the lever. They chose the minority.

All political issues, all political decisions are basically trolley problems. In every one, politicians have to choose between the special interests, friends, relatives, neighbours, lobbyists and the greater good – what is best for the community. Do they put aside petty ideologies and make decisions in the best interests of the community at large, or do they pursue their own personal agendas, power grabs, and vendettas?

It has always been thus. The father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, wrote, “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.” And it is the greater good – the action that serves the betterment or interests of the greater number – that is always viewed as the proper choice, the moral choice. Anything else is viewed as elitism, entitlement and corruption.

Given the polarizing nature of politics, however, “do nothing” is seldom a real choice. It’s seen as weak, spineless, vague – like deferring a decision when a crowd is present simply shows you’re too cowardly to make a stand in public. There are consequences and liabilities even when you do seem to nothing.

Let me advance my own scenario in the wide expanse of trolleyology to illustrate how it relates to the local situation. See how the ethics play out:

Imagine you are a fighter pilot in a fully armed, modern jet. Without warning, your aircraft fails and you lose power. It is going to crash. It will cause enormous damage and loss of life when it does. You have a single second to divert the craft before it crashes and you bail out.

  1. One target is the sole hospital in a small town of 21,000 people.
  2. The other target is your headquarters, isolated in the country with a dozen people you know in it.

Which target is the most ethical choice?

Metaphorically speaking, in our own community, The Block has chosen to crash into the town rather than hurt its dozen or so isolated supporters left. Is that ethical?

Of course, it’s just a thought experiment. No one gets killed – we hope – just because our council makes a bad decision, makes an unethical choice or favours their friends over the greater good. But that doesn’t mean no one gets hurt or that no damage is done. Quite to the contrary. The trolley problem reflects what happens in real life, as Edmonds points out. And The Block have consistently hurt people and damaged the town by making decisions against the majority. The hospital decision is just the tip of a very large iceberg.

It is, of course, understandable that the way the question is framed helps determine the response. The Block sees the choice as them-vs-us. Strangers versus friends. Opponents versus supporters. So naturally they’d choose to protect their ever-dwindling band of supporters. It’s all they have left after two years of monumentally bad, majority-hostile decisions.

And that’s what they have done consistently done ever since they were elected: choose their minority over the greater good. In every major decision: when they voted against the greater good to sell our share of Collus PowerStream without public input, their decision against the greater good to sell the airport and put roadblocks up to the job-creating development there, when they threatened public interest and wellbeing by privatizing our water and wastewater services, in their decision to cancel the shared services agreement and take on the revenue burdens of hiring town staff to do IT and GIS services, in their decision to extend the interim CAO’s extremely expensive contract ($226,000 a year) instead of replacing him with a permanent CAO at a much lower salary. Their preference for secrecy to openness, their preference for many (many!) back-room decisions to accountability are further examples of choosing against the greater good.

Even their constant decisions each and every budget to raise taxes, user fees and utility rates reflects their suspicions that anything done for the benefit of the majority, for the greater good, is bad.

As Edmonds notes, “Real life is full of white noise, ethical hiss. The complexity of life makes it difficult to identify pertinent features of moral reasoning.” But one would expect that those who ran for office also had a personal moral compass to guide them in their decision making, not just some selfish desire to get their own way. In that, our expectations have been dashed, many times over this term.

Edmonds also says. “To feel secure, we require the institutions of state to operate consistently, without making exceptions on grounds of expediency.” To that sentence I’d add, “favouritism, or convenience.” Yet that’s just what The Block have done since day one. No wonder they have few supporters left.

While Bentham’s utilitarian views taken as a whole are somewhat simplistic and even unrealistic, his axiom should still guide our politicians. He also expressed it as, “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.” If making the decision to oppose the hospital redevelopment on its proposed site is measured in happiness, then The Block has caused widespread unhappiness and dissatisfaction among our residents. In doing so, The Block have eroded the foundations of those morals and legislation. They cannot be trusted to act on our behalf.

As for the interim CAO, it’s hard to understand his resistance to the hospital. Or for that matter to Collus-PowerStream, our water and wastewater utility, our airport, the airport developers, the staff at Collus, our taxpayers and all the other departments, partnerships, staff and initiatives he seems to detest. He doesn’t live here, his contract is almost up, and he has no friends or allies outside The Block. People may dance in the street when he leaves his office on his final day, but his legacy will be a dark cloud over this town and council for many years yet. People will run next election promising to try to reverse some of the damage done under his leadership.

I can only suppose that his intention all along was to be unloved and his name reviled by the majority.

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