John Garvey

John Garvey

There is a thought experiment in moral philosophy, made famous by Philippa Foot, called the trolley problem. Imagine you are the driver of a runaway trolley that you can steer but not stop. Up ahead, the track forks in two.

On the left, there are five men working. If you go that way, you will surely kill them all. (And let us suppose the trolley is heading that way.) On the right, there is one man working. If you turn the trolley in that direction, you will kill him. What do you do?

For the utilitarian who believes in solving moral problems by summing good and bad results, it seems right — maybe even necessary — to turn the steering wheel toward the right. That will produce a net saving of four lives.

Not everyone feels that way. Some people are troubled that the driver is doing an act we can accurately describe as intentionally killing the worker on the right.

The act does save more lives than it takes. But does it not violate the moral rule that one may never do evil so that good may result from it?

Perhaps you have anticipated where I am going with this thought experiment. This presidential election season is presenting us with a variant of the trolley problem.

Hillary Clinton will appoint a cabinet and a Supreme Court that view human life, faith and the traditional family as disposable items on society’s path toward a peculiar kind of personal autonomy that values none of them.

Donald Trump seems to be running a campaign against the love of neighbor, and his private conversations about women demonstrate little regard for human dignity.

Not only are these two bad choices, but the design of our current two-party system makes them the only choices we have. There are only two tracks the election can go down, and serious harm awaits us in both directions.

I have heard some thoughtful people say that the right course of action is to vote for neither candidate. This would be like the driver of the trolley taking his hands off the steering wheel. It seems to avoid the problem of intentionally killing the worker on the right.

But I don’t think it lets us off the hook entirely. For one thing, because the left track is the default position, we know that doing nothing will result in the death of five workers.

What’s more, we would consider it a serious dereliction of duty for a trolley driver — especially one steering in an emergency — to take his hands off the wheel. Why is the same not true for a citizen on election day?

Life would be morally simpler if we had a lot of political parties, and one of them took positions on matters of life, family, faith, care for the poor, immigration, respect for women and so on that matched up with our beliefs. But I’m not sure the country would be better off with an arrangement like that. Historically, our two-party system has had the moderating effect of driving parties to the middle in search of uncommitted voters.

Setting to one side the personal failings of this year’s candidates, the other thing that has made this election a trolley problem is that both parties have lurched so far to the outside. Americans as a whole hold more moderate views on abortion, immigration, race, religious freedom and gender identity than the candidates profess.

You have to wonder, how did the brakes fail on this particular trolley? And given our perilous predicament, do you turn the steering wheel?


Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is