The Polis
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The Polis

The Biden Trolley Experiment

Why I didn’t vote for Joe Biden (and Don’t Regret It)

Honestly, I was never going to vote for Joe Biden. The thought never crossed my mind. Out of all the candidates that the election season began with, Joe Biden was amongst the worst, enjoying the company of people like Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg and Tim Ryan. And I thought his lackluster performance in the primaries, his frequent gaffes and his complete lack of a coherent message would preclude Biden from consideration. Indeed, it is still a complete mystery how he managed to rise to the top of the ticket. Didn’t people notice that he could barely complete a sentence without sounding demented? Oh well, I’m sure it was a totally legitimate and transparent process that propelled him to frontrunner status. But I still wasn’t going to vote for him.

There are a truckload of reasons that Joe Biden was a terrible candidate: he has a history of lying and fabricating, and was even forced to withdraw his candidacy in a previous presidential campaign for being caught plagiarizing speeches and lying about his record. He voted for the Iraq War and actively and enthusiastically cheered on the war machine, even after it was made public that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and it should have been obvious that it was an unjustified, preemptive war of aggression. Remember that by some estimates nearly a million people were killed in the illegal Iraq war, most of them civilians.

He wrote the 1994 Crime Bill, which introduced enhanced penalties and aggressive enforcement measures for non-violent crimes, fueling unprecedented mass-incarceration that propelled the US to become the incarceration capital of the entire planet. At its height, the US boasted 25% of the world’s prison population, while only having 5% of the world’s actual population. Even blessed with hindsight, Joe Biden stated just this year that he doesn’t regret his Crime Bill leadership, despite the unspeakable damage it has done to poor and working class people (especially black and brown people). In the era of Black Lives Matter and #DefundThePolice, being the chief architect of the very systems of oppression being protested should have been disqualifying in itself.

If that wasn’t enough to disqualify Biden from ever again holding even the meanest political position, let alone the highest office in the land, he also helped write and zealously supported the Patriot Act, an unparalleled affront to civil liberties; he wrote the Bankruptcy Bill, which targeted middle and working class Americans, making it impossible to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy; and he actually supported segregationists, and opposed integration efforts in the 1970’s. Furthermore, Joe Biden has a well-documented history of inappropriate touching, of making women and children physically uncomfortable, and has been credibly accused of at least one sexual assault, which means — in the era of MeToo and Times Up — that Joe Biden was an explicitly wrong choice for these reasons as well. And because of all these tally marks in the ‘Cons’ column, I decided I could not vote for Joe Biden — especially since the only apparent mark in the ‘Pros’ column was “He’s Not Trump.”

I know many, many people of conscience acknowledged the many, many faults of Joe Biden while reluctantly casting a vote for him because Donald Trump was such a loathsome and unacceptable alternative. I respect that decision, and have never sought to vote-shame anyone for voting for Biden — well, not so much FOR Biden as AGAINST Trump. Trump truly was a uniquely unappetizing world leader. He was crude, rude, constantly abrasive and lied practically every time he spoke. He was hostile to democratic values, openly supportive of racists and white supremacists, and spouted dangerous and divisive rhetoric at every opportunity. I get why people were so strongly convinced that Trump had to go, despite the consequences of a potential Biden presidency. However, this is a one-way street — while I don’t vote-shame Biden voters, Biden voters have no problem vote-shaming me. If I didn’t vote for Biden, then I must be perfectly content with Donald Trump, and all the horrible things he does and says. I essentially voted for Trump by not voting for Biden, and I am responsible for all 255,000 people who have died of COVID under Trump’s grossly incompetent virus response. In other words, my refusal to vote for Joe Biden makes me immoral.

I disagree.

In the field of moral philosophy, there is a well-known thought experiment known as “The Trolley Problem,” the most basic version of which is this:

There is a runaway trolley speeding down the tracks toward five people who are certain to be run over and killed by the trolley. You are standing next to a lever, which, if you pull it, will send the trolley down a side track, avoiding the five people. However, on the side track is standing a single railroad worker, who will certainly be struck and killed if you pull the lever. Do you a) do nothing and allow the trolley to kill five people on the main track; or b) pull the lever, causing the death of the single worker?

Many people would reluctantly pull the lever, sacrificing the single worker for the five bystanders. Although, even in this obviously “lesser of two evils” situation, a conscientious person should feel trepidation and guilt. While there is no intent to harm the single worker, you would still be performing an action which, at least indirectly, causes the death of a person. This action, while consequentially producing a less harmful outcome, remains morally ambiguous at best. What would you do?

The problem is made more difficult by changing the facts a little. In another version of the Trolley Problem, the trolley is speeding toward the five innocent bystanders, but you are in a different position. In your position, it is clear that you can stop the trolley before it kills the bystanders if you could place something heavy on the track in front of the trolley. There happens to be a very fat man right by the track, who, if pushed onto the track, would stop the train and save the five bystanders, but would obviously kill the fat man. Do you a) do nothing and let the trolley kill the bystanders; or b) push the fat man onto the track, saving five but killing one. Under this scenario, in order to save five people, you have to intentionally kill one fat man. While in either scenario you are still causing the death of one person to save five people, in the “Fat Man” problem it is much less morally ambiguous. Intentionally killing an innocent man is immoral.

Even if I accept as true the proposition that Trump would cause significantly more harm than Joe Biden — I don’t accept that, but will assume it a priori for illustrative purposes — it is also true that Joe Biden will cause harm if elected. Therefore, by voting for Biden, you are taking an action that is certain to cause some degree of harm. At the very least, you are pulling the lever causing the trolley to kill only one person instead of five. That is a morally ambiguous decision regardless of any other circumstances. However, I believe that the case of voting for Joe Biden — even if only to remove Trump — is more akin to the “fat man” problem. Regardless of your justifications, there is no “Remove Trump” lever to pull — you are voting to elect Joe Biden. You are intentionally pushing a fat man in front of Trump’s train. I chose to do nothing, and allow fate to choose which harm occurs. While I will certainly feel remorse for the consequences, regardless of the outcome, I remain blameless in the ordeal. My decision is, if anything, amoral.

Now, I know a Biden administration will likely be better in many areas of concern, including social equality and climate issues. However, I also believe that he will be significantly more harmful in other areas, including military aggression and support for the military industrial complex. On most issues, I believe Biden will be no better or worse than Trump, including wealth inequality, mass incarceration and Wall Street corruption. On balance, I predict that Biden will be only slightly “better” than Trump, if at all. But I will be generous. Many people that I respect voted for Biden to oust Trump. I will assume that they pulled the lever to save five people, instead of pushing the fat guy onto the tracks. The only question to be answered, and which only time will do, is how many lives were sacrificed to save the five. In any event, the act of voting for Biden was, at best, no more or less morally ambiguous than my decision to do nothing.

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Jesse Beasley

Jesse Beasley

Public interest advocate. Guitar guru. Devoted father. Political dissident.