The Trolley Problem poses a classical ethical issue, under what circumstances is it permissable to inflict harm on an individual for the "greater good?" In the original form of the problem a bystander sees a trolley with five passengers aboard headed for disaster. However, a solution is available, the bystander is beside a switch. By throwing the switch, she can avert the disaster and spare the lives of the five passengers. The problem is that a worker on the spur that the trolley will be switched to will be killed by the run away trolley.
What does this have to do with drone warfare and targeted assassination? Follow me below the fold to find out.
First, a test. Would you flip the switch even though it effect is to kill the worker on the new track? Many folks would say yes, it is worth the inadvertent sacrifice of one life to save five.
Although it is difficult to know exactly, given the secrecy surrounding the process, the Administration's rationale for the targeted assassination of suspected al-Qaeda by drones seems to be based on the Trolley problem. By killing these "terrorists," a greater number of American citizens will be saved from harm.
However, if this is the basis of the program, it is severely flawed. The relevant adaptation is this:
A group is riding safely in a trolley. The conductor sees a person ahead standing by a switch. The conductor immediately jumps to the conclusion that she is going to throw the switch and send the trolley over a cliff. The conductor fires a rocket propelled grenade that kills the person standing by the switch and a number of bystanders.
How do you feel about this scenario? Does it seem morally reasonable to kill individuals based upon the suspicion that they might at some point in the indeterminate future cause a harm?
Please note, I am not asserting that there are not dangerous people in the world whom the administration ought to protect US citizens from. However, given the "bubble" in which national security decisions are made, it seems completely bizarre not to have some external checks on the decision-making process.