Five people are tied up on a train track and from your vantage point on a footbridge, you see a runaway streetcar barreling toward them. You are standing next to a lever which can switch the trolley to a sidetrack but you notice a lone man tied to that track as well. Do you pull the lever and make the switch which will kill one man but save five? Or do you do nothing?
This is the famous thought experiment in ethics known as the “Trolley Problem,” first unveiled by Philippa Foot at Oxford University in 1967. I have promised you one final article in a three-part series on the use of the Lesser of Two Evil Principles in the 2016 US Elections. Maybe because this election is often described as a “runaway train” (google it, if you don’t believe me), or maybe because voting booths used to involve pulling a lever (google it, if you don’t believe me), but The Trolley Problem seems like a fitting conundrum. The lesser of two evils. Trump vs. Hillary. Five deaths or one. Of more importance however is the issue of personal implication. If you pull the lever, you are consciously intending and actively participating in the death of a human being. If you don’t pull the lever, sure, five people will die, but you are not to blame. Or are you? Your inaction is certainly the result of conscious intention—you could have pulled the lever, but chose not to.
Since I hang out more often with Honest Republicans and evangelical Christian friends, I’ve more often heard the concern: “If I don’t vote, or if I vote for a third party, or if I write in a candidate—that is essentially a vote for Hillary Clinton, isn’t it?” I have resolutely refused to believe this. A thought experiment like the Trolley Problem is allowed to control its variables: there are ONLY two tracks, and you have only two choices, to pull the lever or to not pull the lever. Our so-called Two Party System has a vested interested in controlling its variables. They want you to believe that there are only two tracks. I will grant that the Two Party System is so entrenched that, barring circumstances under God’s control alone, there are only two possible outcomes for Inauguration Day 2017: our next president will either be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. But possibilities are not the same thing as choices. Just exactly how implicated do we have to be in the outcome of this 2016 election?
And THAT I think is the precise point that needs to be made about the Lesser of Two Evils Principle: we want the 2016 election to come and go and we don’t want to be implicated at all by our choices. We want to be let off the hook. Immediately after every election, a genre of bumper stickers pop up similar to an example from 2008: “Don’t blame me. I voted for McCain/Palin.” In 2016, a car bumper won’t be big enough to contain all the mental machinations we went through to justify our vote: “Don’t blame me. I invoked the Lesser of Two Evils Principle by calculating that Trump this and Hillary that and yada, yada, yada.” Philippa Foot is considered the “grand dame of philosophy.” I could end this series by quoting the “Prince of Preachers” instead, Charles Spurgeon who said, “Of two evils, choose neither.” Or I could try to develop the “Prince of Theologians” Thomas Aquinas who argues for the Principle of Double Effect over the untenable Lesser of Two Evils Principle. But no, I’m drawn to French Philosopher Jacques Ellul who gets to heart of the problem: we are afraid of our own freedom. We want our vote to be cast, but we don’t want our hand to be the one that casts it. The Lesser of Two Evils Principle seems like a convenient distancing agent, a pair of disposable gloves. “Don’t blame me; Blame the Lesser of Two Evils Principle.”
I was confronted this past week about my own fear of freedom by two juxtaposed articles written by a pastor, Thabiti Anyabwile. In October 2012, right before our last presidential election, Anyabwile announced his intentions in a Gospel Coalition blog. Faced with the choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, he chose not to vote at all. He even invoked an editorial piece by W.E.B. Dubois from 1956, “Why I Won’t Vote.” (DuBois’s beef wasn’t so much with the candidates Eisenhower and Stevenson, as with their two parties, both weak on civil rights.) In 2012, Anyabwile concludes:
I know there are no perfect candidates, but I do know there are perfect principles. And neither party or candidate stands for them. I’m not moved by the harangues of a [Al] Sharpton or [Jesse] Jackson for not voting. Neither of those men could carry DuBois’ books. I would never presume to tell others how to exercise their conscience on this matter. I would simply ask, as DuBois did, “Why are you voting the way you are?” Unless something dramatic happens in the following weeks, something far more substantive than tonight’s over-scripted debate, I’m “voting” by not voting. To quote Luther: “My conscience is held captive by the Word of God. And to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
If that was Anyabwile's response to Obama vs. Romney, you would think that he would dust off DuBois and drag him out doubly for Trump vs. Hillary in 2016. Not so. Anyabwile was the subject of a May 12th editorial in Christianity Today entitled “Why Voting for a Third Party Shouldn’t Ease Your Conscience.” After Cruz and Kasich dropped out of the Republican race, Anyabwile tweeted: “Let the hate begin, but if choice is between Clinton and Trump, I’m voting Clinton. I’ll go back to not voting when this man is defeated!” He explained to CT:
“For the last several elections, I’ve been that principled guy saying ‘I just can’t vote for anybody,’” Anyabwile said. “But this particular election has brought me to a place where I’m staring my principles in the face and I have a different type of crisis of conscience. I can’t opt for a personal type of quietism here, where I palliate my own conscience. I actually have to inform my conscience.”
To inform one’s conscience is to claim responsibility for it. That’s brave. And yes, Jacques Ellul would say to Anyabwile: Be warned: the hate will begin, and that has nothing to do with being a declared voter for Hillary. The brave exercise of one man’s freedom implicates the rest of us who are still looking for a way to escape responsibility.
In the first run of the Trolley Problem, the utilitarians were the quickest to chime in. “Of course, you pull the lever,” they told the researchers, and then they went home and rested their heads contentedly on their pillows. They pulled the lever for the lesser of two evils, which could almost be stated mathematically: 1 < 5, ergo 1. Others spent more time agonizing before pulling the lever—after all, it was a human life that was taken—but in the end, they too pulled the lever. The experimenters then began to pose variations, the most famous of which is called “the Footbridge Variation” or “the Fat Man Variation.” In this scenario, there is a single track with five men tied to it. The trolley can be stopped by pushing a heavy weight off the footbridge onto the tracks, but the only heavy weight available to you is a fat man standing next to you on the footbridge. Do you push him onto the tracks, killing him but saving the five men? Or do you do nothing? Even though the basic elements of the thought experiment are the same, many people who chose to pull the lever (to kill one in order to save five) couldn’t bring themselves to push someone off the bridge (to kill one in order to save five.) That would make them feel too fully implicated in the man’s death. Ellul argues that since we can never relinquish our freedom as moral beings, or additionally what has been purchased for us by Jesus as “freedom in Christ,” we can therefore never outrun implicating ourselves. As human beings, we find this intolerable:
It is not true that people want to be free. They want the advantages of independence without the duties or difficulties of freedom. Freedom is hard to live with. It is terrible. It is a venture. It devours and it demands. It is a constant battle, for around us there are always traps to rob us of it. But in particular freedom itself allows us no rest. It requires incessant emulation and questioning. It presupposes alert attention, ruling out habit or institution. It demands that I always be fresh, always ready, never hiding behind precedents or past defeats.
What people want when they talk about freedom is not being subject to others, being able to have their own dreams or go where they want to go. Hardly more. They definitely do not want to have to take charge of their own lives and be responsible for what they do.
Freedom inevitably means insecurity and responsibility. But we moderns seek above all to be responsible for nothing. Yet we want an air of freedom, an appearance of liberty. We want to vote. We want a party system. We want to travel. We want to choose doctors and schools. In relation to such trivialities we dare to talk of freedom.
The moral universe is a chaotic raging sea and is apt to swell up in the most unlikely of places, like in a voting booth. We are commanded to step out of the boat and walk on water. Instead, we cling to pathetic bits of flotsam like the Lesser of Two Evils Principle and cling in half-hope that we will be saved in the end.
Don’t blame me; blame my party.
Don’t blame me; blame the voting guide I use.
Don’t blame me; blame Justice Scalia for dying too early.
Don’t blame me; blame the Electoral College.
Don’t blame me; blame my single-issue voting mandate.
Don’t blame me; blame a convention of bound delegates or super delegates.
Don’t blame me; blame how despicable the other candidate is.
Thabiti Anyabwile has inspired me, and Jacques Ellul has warned me. I visualize a scene of great bravery in November where I tear back the curtain as I step out of the voting booth. I find an election volunteer, the one who hands me my little “I voted” sticker. I look her in the eye. I growl and say, “Blame me for the way I just voted.”
Thabiti Anyabwile (and DuBois) in 2012
Thabiti Anyabwile (and Clinton) in 2016
Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1986), 167-9.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Liberator Today will now take a summer hiatus. When we publish again, the two conventions will have passed, and we’ll all have a better sense of the trajectory of this election.