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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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (6+ / 0-)

    Reporting from Tea Bagger occupied America

    by DrJohnB on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 02:57:17 PM PST

  •  No, it does not. n/t (0+ / 0-)

    "We refuse to fight in a war started by men who refused to fight in a war." -freewayblogger

    by Bisbonian on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 03:25:21 PM PST

  •  A good and straight forward explanation (0+ / 0-)

    of the ethical issue involved, and I wish I had thought to lay it out this succinctly.

  •  Maybe you should change the scenario (0+ / 0-)

    From a person standing by the switch to a person touching it in a way that is consistent with an intention to throw the switch, but not guaranteed to be so.  Or what if the person standing by the switch is someone known to have previously given support to a group that advocates throwing the switch in such situations?

  •  Lots of problems (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Meteor Blades, Deward Hastings

    The analogy does not work.

    There is not run-away trolley (unless its the US war machine).

    The situation is that someone is informing you that someone at some switch might intend to cause a runaway trolley car by turning an unspecified and and unknown switch at some unspecified point in the future.  And they have a putative list of possible folks who might do that because they are reported by unknown persons to have a motive, they are either friends with a switchman or live near a switch (but not necessarily the one that might lead to a catastrophic runaway trolley), and they are reported ready to act in some loosely imminent future.

    Do you kill them pre-emptively?

    And even that doesn't begin to frame the analogy to the trolley problem.

    Who is a non-civilian?  How do we know?
    Who is a al-Qua'ida non-civilian? (the AUMF is only for folks related to 9-11)  How do we know that?
    What is the threat?  How will it be done?  Where?  How imminently?
    How do you locate this person?  How do you confirm that the person is the one identified as being responsible for an imminent threat?  What is the opportune time in this person's schedule to kill?  How many innocent people do you accept killing as "collateral damage"?

    Last, most important question. How sure are you of each piece of intelligence that you are using to answer these questions?  How sure of the total picture resulting from your imposition of a narrative are you?  Would you like an official in another country to have the ability to make the same decisions about your life and the life of those nearest to you who might be "collateral damage"?

    Now make your decision.

    And hope to hell it's not a wedding party for one of your allied officer's families, or a meeting with a friendly and influential local person who has been persuading people to avoid al Quaida, or the result of a grudge report from a jealous cousin.

    But remember.  Always apologize. And bring them a sheep.

    50 states, 210 media market, 435 Congressional Districts, 3080 counties, 192,480 precincts

    by TarheelDem on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 04:47:12 PM PST

    •  This is one of the key problems: (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      TarheelDem, Deward Hastings

      "...ready to act in some loosely imminent future."

      That's the Bush Doctrine of preventive war (which is a war aggression). Pre-emptive warfare, which everybody agrees is okay, does not fiddle with the definition of "imminent" to the point it has no practical meaning.

      I do think you're a big hard on the diarist. It's the seed that you brought to blossom.

      Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

      by Meteor Blades on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 04:57:18 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I have a personal dog in this hunt (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Meteor Blades, Deward Hastings

        The CPD on May 16 could have been operating under the white paper guidelines and I would not be here.  Just for exercising my First Amendment rights.

        It's the vague language that allows maximum lattitude; the Founding Father were very much against allowing an executive maximum latitude.  But that seems to be the SSCI's entire rationale in letting this slide.

        If this is not fixed now, it is going to come back to bite this President and the Democrats in Congress bigtime.

        This is this generation's Phoenix Program. Without borders.

        50 states, 210 media market, 435 Congressional Districts, 3080 counties, 192,480 precincts

        by TarheelDem on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 05:21:17 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Why isnt the question being asked.... (0+ / 0-)

    Why would someone create a button to send a trolly over a cliff in the first place?  

    Would you ride a trolley that had a build in, purposeful failure system?  I wouldnt.

    The true strength of of an oath is forged in adversity.

    by Nur Alia Chang on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 04:55:53 PM PST

  •  The follow-up question, (0+ / 0-)

    of course, is always: "Suppose there were 2 workers on the track..." and so on, until you're making a bean-counter proud.  There is an entire field of Buddhist philosophy dedicated to answering this question.  The upshot is: you must find a skillful means to reduce harm.  In the real world, you don't accept that there are only 2 possibilities.  You work to create a 3rd.

    190 milliseconds....

    by Kingsmeg on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 06:30:33 PM PST

  •  Thorny problem. (0+ / 0-)

    On the one hand, we are familiar with the power of modern communications to influence people and get them to act. So anybody exhorting people who might be already inclined to harm a lot of people is, I think, a legitimate target, even though nobody can say for sure how many deaths he might cause or when they might happen.

    On the other hand, such a hazily defined criterion lends itself to much misuse as it becomes standard practice and is expanded on in the future.

    Better to surveil the people who are on the receiving end of the messages. I think we have had a number of successes on that end of things, including the Federal Reserve bomber who was in the news just today.

    Now, how about entrapment in carrying out those kinds of stings? I think there are pretty well developed ways of sorting that question out, but I don't really know.

    Moderation in most things.

    by billmosby on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 07:47:57 PM PST

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