We have a trolley problem

Ruminating about the current situation in Malta, I started thinking about how we, big-brained Maltese primates are fairly ridiculous creatures. Europeans of Semitic descent. Christian, mainly in name. Certainly, Maltese Gemgem. A big chunk of us could even be Ġaħan Laburisti.

Yet, consider. 

Together, we defeated colonialism and achieved independence. However laboriously, together we built a Republic and made it part of the European Union. Together, we have achieved a fairly high standard of living on a small rock in the Mediterranean, devoid of any natural resources, except the sun, maybe.   

Co-operation is, for better or worse, how we all got to now. Often times we have done so reluctantly, sometimes we did it violently, frequently we exhausted every other possibility. Yet, we kept stumbling toward one another to get pretty much everything done.

But consider once again.

Togetherness now seems passé. It would appear that we have now hit the limit of our capacity to get along. I’m thinking about the tenor of our politics. I’m thinking about the atmosphere of pervasive mistrust, corroding institutions and a collective retreat into the comforting bosom of confirmation bias. I’m thinking of how even the most level-headed people seem to have lost it.

But my concern is even more fundamental: are we capable as a people of coordinating our actions on the scale necessary to address the most dire problems we face? Have we forgotten our greatest trick: doing good things together? Because, look at us: it is undeniable that we have a sour and fragmented polity right now. Considering that our fates are so obviously intertwined, you want to scream.

Have we forgotten our greatest trick: doing good things together?

The Recent Events have rocked the political establishment and divided people along party lines more than ever before. It’s a situation where it is obviously in the interest of the collective group that people work together to create rules and institutions for the future. It is crystal clear that people need to make individual sacrifices in the interest of the collective good. Logic would dictate it. 

Yet, logic is in short supply. Rationality seems to have gone out the window. Human moral judgment seems to have disappeared.

I am reminded about the philosophical thought experiment conducted by Joshua Greene, a psychology professor at Harvard, in 1999. The thought experiment was called the trolley problem. An out-of-control trolley is headed towards five people who will surely die unless you pull a lever that diverts it onto a track where it will instead kill one person. Would you, should you, pull the lever?

Now rewind the tape. Suppose that you could avert the five deaths not by pulling a lever, but by pushing a very large man off a footbridge and onto the track, where his body would slow the train to a halt just in time to save everyone, except, of course, him. Would you do that? And the answer would become complicated if, as it turned out, some people said yes the first time and not the second. What is their rationale now? Isn’t it a one-for-five swap either way?

Greene did brain scans of people while they thought about the trolley problem. The results suggested that people who refused to save five lives by pushing an innocent bystander to his death were swayed by the emotional parts of their brains, whereas people who chose the more utilitarian solution, that is keeping as many people alive as possible, showed more activity in parts of the brain associated with logical thought.

Greene’s findings lead to the conclusion that human “reasoning” is sometimes more about gut feeling than about logic. If anybody is interested, he could well read such books as Predictably Irrational by the psychologist Dan Ariely, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli psychologist. In his book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Greene writes about “the central tragedy of modern life”, being the apparently inbuilt parochialism that prevents common-sense morality.

The intense parochialism and tribalism we are seeing does suggest that we may be approaching a point of true peril. Things have got really nasty. Add to the hot cauldron the perception that relations between the two sides are zero-sum — that one group’s win is the other group’s loss, or winner-takes-all — and you get an explosive situation.

In today’s situation, the majority in the PN think that, if they exploit the Inquiry’s condemnation of the Government and its protagonists, they will eliminate various people from the political scene or win the next election. On the other hand, the majority in the PL think that, if they continue to deliver economic results, they will win.

The intense parochialism and tribalism we are seeing does suggest that we may be approaching a point of true peril.

Zero-sum thinking where one person’s gain would be another’s loss promotes zero-sum fallacies. Such fallacies can cause other false judgements and poor decisions. In our situation, the PN could succeed in forcing Abela, Zammit Lewis, the President and who knows who else to resign, but lose the election. On the other hand, the PL could still deliver economic results but lose the election if enough people decide it hasn’t done enough about the Inquiry conclusions.

When you are in zero-sum mode and derogating your rival group, any of its objectives and actions that seem different from yours may share in the derogation. Meanwhile, you will point to your own tribe’s distinctive, and clearly superior, objectives as a way of shoring up solidarity within it. The conflict between the groups draws energy from prior intertribal tensions, including a sense that your group is threatened by another group, so that the game is zero-sum.

It is tempting to look around at people with whom you have an argument and think that their primitive views are what stands in the way of progress. But if psychology tells us anything, it is to be suspicious of the intuition that the other guys are the problem and we’re not.

There no longer is any doubt that that many beliefs, including moral ones, are grounded in feeling more than reason — what Jonathan Haidt, a professor in social psychology, calls “moral dumbfounding” in his book The Righteous Mind.  Haidt’s moral dumbfounding illustrates the difficulty people may have in explaining why exactly they believe that Daphne Caruana Galizia was “asking for trouble” or that Prime Minister Robert Abela “commissioned Mrs Caruana Galizia’s assassination”.

Often people don’t agree on an issue, because they interpret — or misinterpret — the facts differently, or they simply ignore facts that don’t fit their view. People on both sides of the political aisle do this, studies show, and so even what might seem like simple notions of “right” and “wrong” are judged based on altered realities by both parties.

The disconnect between words and actions is compounded by the politicians and commentators who populate the traditional media as well as the new social ones.  The people who are the public face of politics, who get on TV and who are on all the talk shows, who blog and tweet incessantly, they are not only highly partisan, they are the most partisan of the partisans. The blame for partisanship, or at least the perception of partisanship, also rests with the endless number of politically-biased TV and radio shows, newspapers and Internet sites.

At the end of the day, solutions can only be found if individuals or groups of them talk out their differences. Are we really committed to that? For the life of me, I cannot understand how we can have the Leader of the Opposition insisting on being part of a commission to oversee the implementation of the recommendations made by the DCG Inquiry, while Dr Jason Azzopardi retweets that “let’s hope that TheLet’sWorkTogetherKumbayah crap has been put to pasture for good” and Therese Commodini-Cachia tweets that the Prime Minister should stay “stay out of journalism”, not be involved in implementing the Inquiry’s recommendations on the media.

Similarly, I have difficulty in the Government saying that it wants to work with all stakeholders in implementing the Inquiry findings, but just cannot find a way to involve the Opposition, except invite them to publish its own proposals. I have heard this sort of argument before: do not invite this one or the other to be part of the group, since he is “a trouble-maker”, as in ‘we would be uncomfortable listening to something awkward’.

If we are to build for the future, rather than put a layer of asphalt on a crumbling foundation, we need to engineer a non-zero-sum or win-win situation, as in the movie Arrival, where the protagonist Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, and her daughter have a conversation in a flashback, entirely based on non-zero-sum game.

In the flashback, when Dr. Banks and her daughter have a conversation about their discoveries on alien data, they realise that there are 12 spaceships in total, and therefore 12 different groups of scientists, each with a different set of information. In order to obtain the full body of data, they therefore must share their achievements with the other groups, which they determine is a non-zero-sum game.

That is what Nelson Mandela and Willem de Clerk did in South Africa so successfully. Instead of looking back at the deep wounds of the past, they showed personal integrity and great political courage, and they laid the ground for a transition to a new political order.

But we don’t need to go back to 1993. We only need to take the major lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic. By working together, rather than competing, scientists managed to deliver an effective vaccine within one year, rather than the normal 10-15 years.

If the two political parties in Malta really have the nation’s interest at heart, they will stop playing the zero-sum game and embrace the non-zero-sum one. 


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