Monday, January 26, 2015

The Trolley Problem and Political Rhetoric

The results and conclusions surrounding The Trolley Problem are highly suggestive about what arguments may or may not work when one is trying to persuade people about something they consider to be an ethical situation.

In The Trolley Problem, you are faced with the following pair of ethical dilemmas.
  1. There is an out-of-control trolley barreling down the tracks toward five people. You can switch the track, but if you do, you will kill one person on the track. Do you switch the track, allowing five to live, but allowing one to die? Or do you not interfere?
  2. There is an out-of-control trolley barreling down the tracks toward five people. You can push someone onto the track to stop the trolley, but if you do, you will kill that person. Do you push the track, allowing five to live, but allowing one to die? Or do you not interfere?
 Most experiments show people will switch the track, but won't push the person, even though the outcome of one dying so five may live is the same. Why the difference?

People view the death of the one from scenario 1 as a side effect of saving the five, while the death of the one from scenario 2 is an intention. That is. in scenario 2, we are using a human being as a means to an end (something Kant argued we should never do, about which it seems most people agree). This is on the case in scenario 1.

This suggests something about how we ought to make arguments about things like the minimum wage.

Most arguments I read about why we should not have a minimum wage involve the argument that it will result in the unemployment of some even as it increases the wages of others.

How does this relate to the Trolley Problem? Simple. The economist who makes this argument is making the argument that the 1 should not be sacrificed for the 5. They are saying you should neither switch the track nor push the man.

But most people do not accept that. Most people think it is okay for the track to be switched. And people view increasing the minimum wage as switching the track. You don't intend to unemploy people with it; it's just a side effect of helping others.

Economists, if they want to make a strong argument that will persuade people to oppose the minimum wage, will have to frame the argument as the minimum wage pushing someone onto the tracks. That is, that the effect of unemploying some people is not a side effect. We have to frame the argument such that people view it as using some people as a means to help other people. The number of people being used by politicians when they raise the minimum wage is quite large, in fact. Not only are unskilled workers being used by politicians to get votes and to raise the incomes of a handful of people, but employers are being used as well. Politicians who raise the minimum wage are using people as means, not ends. They are treating low skilled workers as means, and they are treating business owners as means.

Politicians are always pushing people onto the tracks, but claiming they only switched the tracks. We need to stop agreeing with the politicians about what it is they are doing.
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