The Trolley


Written by Sindhuja Darisipudi. Edited by Tanae Rao and Shreya Saha.

Artwork by Aerielle Ong.

October 10th, 2019, 1:40 PM: I shuffled my way into my school’s Theory of Knowledge (TOK) classroom, where my classmates and I were met with that day’s activity: working our way through variations of “The Trolley Problem”. The Trolley Problem, developed by Philippa Foot, highlights one of the most pressing ethical conflicts: utilitarianism versus deontological ethics. In its simplest and most popular form, The Trolley Problem can be summarised as follows:

A trolley, with broken brakes, is quickly rolling down a hill, and the driver is unable to stop it. As this is happening, you are standing next to the tracks and see that there are five workmen further down the tracks, who will all be killed if the trolley continues down its path. There is a lever that has the ability to switch the path that the trolley is travelling down. If it continues down the alternative path, it will kill one workman further down the tracks. Do you pull the lever?

For the duration of that class period, us twenty-odd 17 and 18 year-olds tackled variations of these problems, with each question presenting a new gender, age, and socioeconomic status of the humans on the track. At the time, it was a rather enjoyable activity; we were all removed from the human aspect of each problem and saw it as a logical puzzle in which we could debate our way to the absolute right answer. For most of us, this was a problem we thought we’d never face in our lives.

Or so we thought. Until May 2020.

May 25th, 2020, 8:20 PM: The Murder of George Floyd. You don’t need me to tell you his story. George Floyd’s brutal murder was a tipping point that sparked what many believe to be a second civil rights movement. It converted long-building movements against police brutality and systemic racism into worldwide protests and demonstrations. Months later, these protests continue in major cities around the US and the world, as citizens battle for racial justice. This incredibly pivotal movement needs people more than anything else. In numbers, there is pressure and a lasting momentum – everything needed to drive change. But as we sat amidst one of the largest pandemics in recent history, I was left with a moral dilemma.

Where did I – a teenage girl with parents who are at risk for COVID-19 – fit into this narrative? How do I weigh the importance of my family’s health against the lives of an entire race? I wished it was as easy as having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, but instead, I now had both an angel and devil on either shoulder. I was facing my first trolley problem.

Maybe in an alternative universe, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be forced to grow up so quickly and face the harsh realities of the world around us. We wouldn’t have to choose between the lives of our families and the lives of an entire race. But here we are, and if hindsight has taught us anything, it’s only going to get harder from here.
I dwelled on this question for days and ultimately realized that while there were others protesting daily, there were not others guaranteeing the safety and health of my family. I reluctantly made the decision not to attend any protests. However logical and reasonable I convinced myself that my decision was, it never sat at peace inside of me, and I’m glad that it did not. As I expressed my guilt to those around me, they reassured me that I could help the movement without attending protests, but it felt so privileged to choose the safety of my family when that was the exact right that so many Black Americans were fighting for.

I did eventually find “my place” in the movement – I figured out how I could drive change from within the four walls of my house—but my moral compass tells me every day that my choice was not the best one. In a way, it was extremely selfish of me to choose my family’s health over the greater good of society. In doing so, I made a choice that others could not.

Of course, this movement is not about me or my moral dilemmas. My feeling of guilt and my ability to choose whether or not I attend protests come from a place of privilege. But I do not write this to ask for pity about the decision I made. I write to ask those of you with the same privileges to self-reflect. It is these self-reflections that elucidate the degree of privilege we all hold within ourselves, and without that, we cannot create a successful movement.

No trolley problem is fun to solve, but it is imperative for each of us to put ourselves in discomfort for the greater good of our less privileged peers. You may not end up making the decision that you wish you could, but, in a way, the beauty of the trolley problem is that there is no right answer. The only right answer, regardless of your decision, is that you channel your discomfort and self-reflection into ensuring the train’s brakes don’t fail again.

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