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Everyday Philosophy: Our need for compassion… and a degree of calculation

NIGEL WARBURTON, one of the world’s most-read philosophers, on the 'Trolley Problem' and why life is more complex than the theory suggests.

Second-placed Poland's Maria Andrejczyk reacts after competing in the women's javelin throw final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP.

Polish athlete Maria Andrejczyk is remarkable. She has thrown a javelin more than 70 metres. At 25 she is a world-class athlete, who overcame injury and illness to get back to the top of her sport, winning a silver medal in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. She lost to an exceptional first throw by China’s Liu Shying in the final. Andrejczyk had missed a bronze by only two centimetres in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

For any athlete, an Olympic medal is something to treasure and pass on to later generations.

But only weeks after winning hers, she put it up for auction to help raise funds for Miloszek Malysa, an eight-month-old Polish child who urgently needs a heart operation in the US. This selfless gesture moved many people around the world.

Andrejczyk wanted to give hope to a family in a terrible position. But there is a system of ethics that would question her actions. Utilitarians believe that the right thing to do in any situation is the action that is likely to bring about the best consequences, and these consequences are measured in the currency of maximized happiness for the greatest number, or, in more sophisticated versions, maximized desire satisfaction.

In a somewhat clichéd thought experiment, ‘the Trolley Problem’, a runaway train or trolley is heading towards five people on a track whom it will certainly kill. You can divert it to run over another person on a different spur of the track by pulling a lever.

Chances are that if you choose to do that you bring about a better consequence overall than letting the trolley continue on its course, even though one person will die. When faced with this highly artificial case, utilitarians take the option of sacrificing that one person to save five, and argue for pulling that lever.

In real life, outcomes are not usually so predictable. But for the 1.5 million zloty (more than £280,000) the operation will cost, it would certainly be possible to save the lives of more than one child – for instance, by providing prophylactic medicines to children in parts of sub-Saharan Africa who would otherwise likely succumb to dysentery or other common diseases.

The utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer has made this point in his book The Life You Can Save where he argues that we in the West could and should give far more than we do to help save the lives of those who lack basic medical resources around the world, and that we can do this at relatively low cost to ourselves.

In his example, you’d jump into a shallow pool ruining your expensive trainers to save a young child drowning, then why not use the money that you blew on the trainers to save a child on the other side of the world?

The child whom Andrejczyk seeks to help is already very ill, and, sadly, there is much uncertainty about whether her extraordinarily generous gesture will be of much more than symbolic use. Obviously it is an incredible boost to her family, faced otherwise with the prospect of watching their child die while knowing that there was a chance of his survival.

And a selfless act like this can provide inspiration to others, as in fact Andrejczyk’s has done. But looked at through the lens of utilitarianism, that money would have been better spent trying to save the lives of more than one child. It could perhaps have saved hundreds of lives. A utilitarian God might switch the money from the sale of the medal away from the one child to help many others, like the passer-by flicking the points in the Trolley Problem sacrificing one to save many.

So much the worse for utilitarianism, you might think, if it focuses on dry calculation at the expense of human sympathy and compassion towards particular individuals. Life is more complex than a Trolley Problem, and we are not cold calculation machines. Symbolic acts of generosity can be contagious too – in this case, the Polish supermarket chain Zabka won the auction and, moved by the athlete’s gesture, let her keep the medal. Yet outcomes are important as well.

Utilitarians are surely right about that, though they may weight them far higher than most of us are prepared to.

If we want a better world, though, we should be careful that not too many of our actions are symbolic or focussed on helping very few when the same resources could help far more people in need.

We need results. We respond strongly to a young child who is ill and want to do everything we can to save him, of course.

But there are many others in desperate need too. We need compassion, but we also need a degree of calculation.

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