The 2020 Election: Our Lifetime’s Trolley Problem

Sam Kennedy
Sep 22, 2020 · 5 min read

Imagine: there is a runaway train headed straight toward five people who will be struck and killed if it continues down its track. You can pull a lever to divert the train to its parallel track where only one person would meet the same fate. You have to choose: do you allow the train to continue down the path it’s on and take five human lives or do you pull the lever and kill one? What is the most ethical decision?

The trolley problem is a foundational (and in recent years, memeified) thought experiment used in studies of ethics, law, and psychology that has been adapted into countless variations. The premise is simple: you are faced with an ethical dilemma where neither option is ideal and both cause harm. The formula can be further complicated through additional options, emotional details, and moral curveballs: What if the one person is a child? Or your fiancé? What if the five people are convicted murderers? What if you could jump in front of the train and sacrifice yourself to save all six?

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Generally, the most universally accepted “right” answer is to divert the train and kill one to save five, though there has been enough debate to keep the discussion relevant for decades.

The 2020 U.S. election is a not-so-subtle, high-stakes, real-life trolley problem that we are all facing. The consequences will be tangible and dire.

If the proverbial train continues down its current track, tens — or even hundreds — of thousands of people will die. They will die of COVID-19, police brutality, climate change, gun violence, hate crimes, lack of access to clean water, healthcare, housing, in detention centers, the list goes on. The number of casualties will be unfathomable and their deaths are preventable.

If you divert the train, you know with nearly clairvoyant certainty that fewer people will die. The exact amount, you can’t be sure, and the causes of death will likely be identical, but a huge margin will be saved.

Neither option ensures complete protection. People are in danger no matter what. The stakes are quite literally life and death. They are real. They are horrifying and gut-wrenching.

In this (unfortunately, not at all hypothetical) example there are also two meta-dilemmas that could give the illusion of alternate options.

The first is that perhaps neither candidate’s platform perfectly aligns with your personal values. Some would argue that for political engagement to be truly ethical, we must endorse the candidates who speak to us morally, and we should not have to compromise our positions. The purist commitment to theoretical ideals over the practical reality that one candidate will be elected may result in voting for a third-party candidate you feel more aligned to, or abstaining from voting at all.

To use the trolley problem imagery, you can try to force the lever in the opposite direction, knowing that even if you are successful, a third track will not spontaneously appear, and the train will continue on one of the two regardless. You can also abstain from making a decision at all and allow someone else to do it for you. You may not actively contribute to the outcome, but you cannot be absolved of responsibility — whichever choice that person makes will be because you refused.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

The second nuance asks why the train is on the track at all and whether or not there is a way to stop it. An abolitionist framework suggests that a fourth option could be to halt the train’s engine or blow up the tracks. However, you know there isn’t enough time to get to the engine room and disassemble the machinery or to locate and secure explosives to the track before the train strikes the people. Do you try anyway?

Both of these alternatives raise the question: is it ethical to disregard the consequences and act as you would in an ideal situation, knowing that neither will actually prevent the loss of life and that the impact of your decision will not align with the intent?

Now, what if we knew another train would be coming… say, four years from now? You could pull the lever, divert the train to save those you’re able to now, and immediately start preparing for the next one. You can choose the option best-fit for these time constraints while also planning to make a different decision in the future. This could potentially give you enough time to gather a team of experts, acquire the tools you need, and get to work on stopping that next train before anyone else is put in danger. Candidly, I am an abolitionist who believes that long term, this is our best option… no matter how long it takes.

It would be obtuse, and frankly disrespectful, not to pause and acknowledge the tremendous loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The tragedy of her spirit, work, and legacy being reduced to the timing of her death. That instead of mourning the loss of her life, we grieve our inability to use her mind and her labor as a resource for understanding and mitigating the inner workings of the train’s machinery, our humanity clouded by panic.

The trepidation surrounding RBG’s passing is a dark reminder that this lever doesn’t only control one train taking one track. Exponential amounts of trains on exponential tracks will be impacted by your move at that lever… and so will the countless people in their paths.

This is no longer a thought experiment. It is a decision that we all have to make. In 6 weeks (or less for many mail-in voters). Do you allow the train to barrel forward? Do you choose the track that will cause less carnage? Do you turn your back and let someone else decide, passively witnessing the life-and-death consequences of your inaction?

The answer is clear to me.


Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store