trolley-problem.jpg.optimalLet us begin with Philippa Foot’s infamous trolley problem.  In the scenario, we are on a runaway trolley that cannot be stopped.  Further along the way there are five people tied to the track.  There is another track that turns off to the left, where a single person is tied down.  Your sole power over the trolley is the ability to choose which track the trolley will go down.  Modern moral theory– especially of the analytic and Anglo-American variety –is filled with dreary and sadistic thought experiments like this.  Foot’s thought experiment stages a confrontation between Kantian deontological ethics and utilitarianism.  On the one hand, Kantian moral theory tells us to always treat people as ends in themselves and never as means to an end.  Yet in this scenario, we have no choice but to treat a person as a means to an end.  We must sacrifice a life to save other lives.  When Mill tells us that utilitarianism determines our moral duties by calculating that action that will produce the greatest amount of happiness– in both quality and quantity –for the greatest number of people we find, in this scenario, a situation where we must kill one person to save five.

logging-slider-img1It is dangerous to write about the trolley problem because so much has been written on it.  It has even made it into popular television shows like The Good Place.  You could probably easily fill a small library with articles exploring the various possible permutations of the thought experiment.  Does it matter whether the single person on the tracks is your child or a Hitler-like villain, or someone suffering from a terminal illness, for example?  Does it matter whether the five people are morally reprehensible?  Alternatively, we could say that the trolley problem is responsible for the destruction of a significant portion of the Brazilian rain forests.    Perhaps we learn something from all of these discussions, though following Isabelle principles regarding what constitutes a good experiment– the capacity to surprise and disrupt our doxa or commonplace assumptions, I’m skeptical.  However, if the trolley problem teaches us something of interest, I think this lies not in what it tells us about the nature of moral reasoning and normative principles by which we make normative judgments, but rather in what it suggests, perhaps, about the nature of agency.  I’m sure someone has written about this somewhere– one could probably devote their entire life to scholarship in philosophy and psychology on the trolley problem –but unfortunately I just don’t have the time to delve that deeply into the literature.  So I will crudely stumble about with my hot take on the trolley problem, knowing that I am woefully ignorant of the literature.  I’m sure someone will come along telling me to read this or that article that I don’t have access to electronically or through my library system that articulates exactly what I say in which follows.

As far as I can tell, modern moral or ethical theory occupies itself with questions about how to determine our duties and evaluate debt (i.e., culpability or responsibility).  Perhaps it is less commonly noticed that much of this ethical theory seems to be premised on a sort of Cartesianism.  By “Cartesianism”, I here mean that in exploring these ethical principles we suppose a sort of generic subject or agent that seems to lack a body– though it can be murdered or tortured –that has no gender, that has no ethnicity, and that doesn’t live in a world or environment.  The subject in ethical theory both appears to exist as both an anonymous person, an invisible man– Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception as opposed to the empirical subject –and to be suspended in a sort of vacuum or void.  This is part of the success of the trolley experiment:  because the subject in ethics is generic or empty– a person without qualities –any of us can place ourselves in this position.

Richard_Lindner_-_Boy_with_Machine_(1954)However, if we shift our conceptual vision a bit, perhaps we could say that the trolley experiment raises not so much a question of what we should do in this situation and what normative principles should decide our course of action, but rather what constitutes an agent in ethics.  We tend to focus on the operator of the trolley.  The operator, we think, is the ethical agent and we will determine our duties and the moral worth of whatever action is chosen based on what the operator chooses.  But, as outrageous as it might sound, what if the operator is not the proper unit at which to identify agency in this thought experiment?  What if, following a broad body of theory ranging from extended-mind theory, 4e cognitive theory (embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended), McLuhan’s radical media theory, and Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage theory (horse-stirrup-foot)– all of which I will loosely call “assemblage theory” –the true agent in this scenario is not the operator, but the operator + the trolley + the switch + the tracks?  In other words, what tends to get lost in the discussions of the trolley theory I’ve encountered is the trolley and the tracks.  We treat these things as a mere backdrop or horizon that allows us to bring certain issues of normativity into relief.  At the end of the day, we say, it’s about the operator or the generic subject of ethical theory.  But it is the trolley and the tracks that delimit the field of possibilities in this scenario.  For this reason, the agent in ethics deserves to be thought as an assemblage or– following the title of Andy Clark’s book Natural Born Cyborgs and Donna Haraway’s famous Cyborg Manifesto –a cyborg.  It is not the operator that is the agent in the trolley scenario, but rather the assemblage.

In a particularly cruel formulation– if we assume the framework of Cartesian humanism –Kant observes that ought implies can.  However, can depends on the nature of the agent in question.  If agents are cyborgs, if they are assemblages where the operator is but one element– a particularly important element to be sure –among other elements, then it follows that we can no longer assume a single or generic agent of ethical theory.  No, there will be as many agents as there are assemblages and since each assemblage has different capacities or powers of acting, there will be very different systems of duty, obligation, and– I shudder to use the word –debt.

1*aqeaQe0DDjINHh_2OdXSsQIn many respects, I think disability theory was the first to recognize this with respect to architecture described as ableist.  What the disability theorists have argued– and it has been among their most successful arguments in concretely changing the world we live in –is that there’s a way in which architecture itself disables people, by making it impossible for them to navigate a wide variety of spaces because of the absence of ramps, elevators, the width of door openings and hallways, etc.  The disability are point to the fact that we are embodied, live in an environment, and depend on all sorts of scaffolds or prostheses to navigate the world.  What we are capable of becomes a very different proposition depending on the sorts of assemblages that are agents.  It does not seem to me that we have thought through the ethical implications of what the disability theorists have taught us, for if we listen attentively they have proposed a true Copernican revolution in how we think about ethical and political issues.

The disabled person is not a unique case that should therefore be relegated to a specialized discipline only on the condition that we have a special interest in issues of disability, but rather if we are all embedded in assemblages then we will find that there are very different systems of capacities.  Take the way in which conservatives often talk about poverty.  They suggest that the poor person is lazy and that this accounts for their poverty.  They suggest that they are responsible for their poverty.  In making this incredibly common argument, they assume the standpoint of Cartesian humanism revolving around the generic human, or the man without qualities that has no body and that is suspended in a frictionless void.  Yet the assemblage of a person born to wealth is very different than the assemblage that of the person born in poverty.  In poverty, very basic things such as functioning schools, sufficient calories, safe environments, job opportunity, and even non-toxic drinking water (Flint, Michigan) are absent.  Isn’t poverty a great deal like the trolley situation where the field of what I can do is severely limited by the assemblage in which I am embedded?  If, then, we were to think of agency as an assemblage, how would it transform how we think about a wide variety of ethical issues?  How would it change the very nature of the ethical and political questions we ask, along with our conception of duties, debts, and obligations?