Politics and the Trolley Problem: An Ethical Defense of “Bernie or Bust”

Despite how the media might frame the conversation about the “Bernie or Bust” movement – either on the left or right – the choice that Bernie Sanders supporters face in voting or not voting for Hillary Clinton in the general election (assuming she is the democratic nominee), essentially boils down to a debate between two contrasting camps in moral philosophy: Utilitarianism and Absolutism.

For the utilitarian Sanders supporter, voting for Clinton becomes the unsavory means to a justifiable end: the “lesser of two evils.” By contrast, for the absolutist Sanders supporter, voting for Clinton would mean an unjustifiable betrayal of their core values, regardless of what positive ends might be achieved.

To quote the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s “War and Massacre,” this is because “Utilitarianism gives primacy to a concern with what will happen…” whereas  “Absolutism gives primacy to concern with what one is doing” (124). Nagel further clarifies this distinction when he claims “what absolutism forbids is doing certain things to people, rather than bringing about certain results. Not everything that happens to others as a result of what one does is something that one has done to them” (130).

In terms of American politics, this translates into various manifestations of what I like to call the “blame game.” For instance, if Sanders absolutists abstain from voting for Clinton, but their actions indirectly result in Donald Trump being elected president, the utilitarian Sanders supporters will place full blame on the absolutist Sanders supporters for indirectly supporting Trump by refusing to support the candidate to produce the desired ends. Of course, the absolutist Sanders supporters response would be that they do not bear any blame whatsoever since they did not directly vote for Trump, nor did they directly select Clinton as the democratic nominee – thus putting her in a position in which the reality of a loss was made possible.

By the same token, if Sanders utilitarians vote for Clinton, and their actions directly result in a Clinton administration which ends up being more center-right, with more hawkish foreign policy, increased military spending, and increased intervention in foreign countries, the Sanders absolutists will no doubt blame the utilitarians for being directly responsible for bad policy, and for not standing by their progressive principles and having the moral fortitude to demand sweeping changes. In response, the utilitarians might claim that incremental gains in economic and social programs outweigh these other negative factors, and that these positive ends could have only been achieved by making necessary moral sacrifices.

In the first case, absolutists are blamed for the indirect causes of their actions – a kind of “evil triumphs when good men do nothing” kind of blame – and in the second case, the utilitarians are blamed for the negative outcomes which are the direct cause of their actions. At this point you might ask, which position is right? Who is really more at fault here? Well, it depends on your perspective, and this brings us to the famous philosophical thought experiment known as the “trolley problem,” originally proposed by philosopher Phillipa Foot.

This particular experiment is a relatively popular moral dilemma which asks the participant to make a decision in light of a perceived deadly threat to other people. To summarize, the thought experiment asks the participant to imagine that he or she suddenly notices that a runaway trolley or train is barreling down the track toward 5 innocent workers at lethal speed. If the participant does nothing, 5 innocent people will die. However, with no way of warning the 5 people in time, the participant is forced to make one of two difficult moral decisions – one which arguably entails more direct human involvement than the other. The participant can either choose to pull a lever so that the car’s trajectory changes, indirectly resulting in the death of 1 innocent bystander, or they can choose to more directly push a large man onto the track, killing him, but saving everyone else.

In the context of the experiment, the true utilitarian would have no qualms about directly pushing the large man in front of the trolley if it resulted in saving more people, but the absolutist would, only with great reluctance, force themselves into pulling the lever rather than pushing the man, indirectly killing the bystander even if it meant saving less people.

As evidenced by my own reaction to the trolley problem – and I suspect I’m not alone in this – there seems to be something more troubling if my actions directly result in a negative outcome than if my actions indirectly end up producing the same result. Admittedly, this is a visceral, emotional response, not a logical one. I cannot, through reasoned argument, justify why I would rather pull the lever than push the man. I can only appeal to my sense of humanity and empathy – a sense bred into my psyche by nature as well as nurture, that, for whatever reason, can’t be overridden by the logical part of my brain.

In my defense, I look again to Nagel’s essay on the subject:

I believe [absolutism] underlies a valid and fundamental type of moral judgment—which cannot be reduced to or overridden by other principles. And while there may be other principles just as fundamental, it is particularly important not to lose confidence in our absolutist intuitions, for they are often the only barrier before the abyss of utilitarian apologetics for large-scale murder (126).

However, in order to preemptively fend off accusations that the moral absolutism I subscribe to here is in any way selfish, irrational, or dogmatic, and to separate myself from people like Kant, it is important to note that I am not an extremist when it comes to absolutism, and neither is Nagel. In fact, he admits that there are limits to holding an absolutist position:

I believe that the dilemma cannot always be resolved. While not every conflict between absolutism and utilitarianism creates an insoluble dilemma, and while it is certainly right to adhere to absolutist restrictions unless the utilitarian considerations favoring violation are overpoweringly weighty and extremely certain—nevertheless, when that special condition is met, it may become impossible to adhere to an absolutist position (126).

Being a “Bernie-or-Bust-er” myself, were it first proven to me that a Donald Trump presidency was a statistical inevitability if I did not vote for Hillary Clinton, and furthermore, were it proven to me that a Donald Trump presidency would be more damaging or dangerous than a Hillary Clinton presidency, I would, of course, reluctantly cast my vote for her.

However, as far as I can tell, Trump appears to be more of a liberal wolf dressed in conservative sheep’s clothing, whose chance of actually being elected is very slim, and whose rhetoric is more dangerous than his policies (or lack thereof). He is likely all bark and no bite. By contrast, I see Hillary Clinton as a hawkish, Machiavellian, right-leaning centrist who is progressive in name only, and whose present and past actions concerning Wall Street, the environment, trade, and foreign intervention pose real dangers to America at large.

The above factors, combined with my desire not to be directly responsible for voting someone into office whose policies result in untold suffering nationally and internationally, form the basis for why I am part of the “Bernie or Bust” movement – a decision which I make based on emotion, logic, as well as evidence – not from some misguided place of privilege or selfishness. My decision is not, as some would have you believe, a naive, impulsive, angry, or reactionary response to my candidate of choice not being selected, but is rather the result of constant research, reflection, and critical thinking.

Given what we know about the complex interplay of Utilitarianism and Absolutism and the currently polarizing nature of American politics, it would be far too easy and too convenient to paint all utilitarian Sanders supporters as spineless, morally bankrupt people who are colluding with “the enemy,” and who are therefore guilty by association, and it would be equally absurd to paint all absolutist Sanders supporters as irrational, dogmatic, and selfish people who are willing to let their country burn so that they can preserve the moral high ground. In fact, I have no doubt that this is exactly the trap that many people will fall into, simply because tribalism is so enticing.

The truth is that both of these are caricatures, and that the decision to vote or not vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election is not as clear-cut or easy as some would like to believe. It is a decision which requires us to be informed, and one which requires us to carefully and soberly examine the nature of our actions as well as their direct and indirect consequences. If we all do our homework on our candidates and are able to make choices free from outside coercion, either from corporate media or dyed-in-the-wool zealots on either side of the fence, the better off our country will be.

To conclude, I will leave you with a final passage from Nagel’s essay which I think gets to the uncomfortable and uncertain heart of the matter – both philosophically and politically:

There may exist principles, not yet codified, which would enable us to resolve such dilemmas. But then again there may not. We must face the pessimistic alternative that these two forms of moral intuition are not capable of being brought together into a single, coherent moral system, and that the world can present us with situations in which there is no honorable or moral course for a man to take, no course free of guilt and responsibility for evil (143).


Works Cited:

Nagel, Thomas. “War and massacre.” Philosophy & Public Affairs (1972): 123-144.








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