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The Trolley Problem of COVID Leadership

Around the world, governments are implementing various approaches in an effort to reopen their societies after the first wave of COVID-19. However, even among culturally similar countries that have experienced relative success through similar attempts to flatten their curves (a strategy which aims to minimize the rate of COVID-19 cases), there are remarkable variations in their reopening approaches. Denmark has opened primary schools because the available evidence states that younger children are less at risk. Germany, instead, has opened its high schools because the available evidence states that older teenagers will be better at complying with social distancing regulations. There is plenty to be said about the epidemiological, economic, and socio-political rationales for each state's strategy. What underpins this global game of trial and error?

Fundamentally, our leaders are having to make decisions without conclusive evidence. Typically, when leaders make decisions, the evidence is consulted, costs and benefits are weighed, and the informed balance leads to an informed decision. President Obama, for example, in 2009 signed over $1 trillion of fiscal stimulus (the policy of injecting liquidity into an economy to stave its aggregate demand from decreasing too severely, avoiding depression conditions) because the evidence was clear that the fiscal stimulus was required to combat the recession.

"When problems are novel and there is no clear decision to be made, the decision becomes a dilemma."

So, while there is always partial uncertainty, there are typically examples that can be used to guide decision making. Such decisions are strong and complete decisions. In effect, leaders can confidently say that one decision is better than the other ahead of time. Because of the availability of factual information, the decision is made on both the validity and strength of the argument. 

Problems arise with incomplete decisions. When problems are novel and there is no clear decision to be made, the decision becomes a dilemma.  When a decision is made, room must be made for the decision to change if new facts emerge.  Therefore, the cost-benefit framework needs to be heavily governed by ethical approaches. Ethics can help guide decision-makers in situations of uncertainty.

The Trolley Problem literally puts the ethical problem presented by Covid-19 on rails. Introduced by Philippa Foot, a seminal virtue ethicist, it illustrates when it is permissible to sacrifice someone for the greater good.  It is a surprisingly effective frame for incomplete decisions.


The canonical Trolley Problem – Rescue 1 – describes a runaway trolley. An individual is faced with a lever that diverts a trolley down an alternate set of tracks. One person is tied to the first set of tracks and five are tied to the other set of tracks. Saving the five will require pulling the lever, directly sacrificing the one. Intuitively, most would support pulling the lever to save the one. Foot contrasted this with Rescue 2, in which the individual is a doctor in a similar position. However, sacrificing one person in this instance will provide the transplants necessary to save five others. 

The two cases hinge on the difference between negative and positive rights. The distinction can be quite confusing, so let’s consider two examples.

A negative right is a freedom that prohibits others from subjecting the right holder to their actions. An example of a negative right is a right to liberty: one must not kidnap a person because that person holds a right to remain free. Rescue 1 pits the negative rights to life of five against the negative right to life of one.

A positive right is one in which the obligation is on other individuals to assist the individual holding the positive right. An example of a positive right is a right to healthcare: a person who has a right to healthcare must have healthcare provided to them if need be. Rescue 2 pits the positive rights to emergency healthcare of 5 against the negative right to life of Rescue 1.

The holders of negative rights only require others to respect their rights by not engaging in the immoral conduct outlined by the negative right. Because of this, Foot argues that in the Western tradition of ethics, negative rights are generally put on a higher pedestal compared to positive rights. This is why the lever-puller in Rescue 1 has a stronger ethical basis to kill the one person on the first track to save the five people on the second track compared to the weaker ethical basis of the doctor in Rescue 2, who kills one person through an organ transplant in order to help save the five patients. That is not to say that positive rights don’t have their place, but they require active instead of passive participation. This arguably puts a greater cost on society.

"The only thing that is clear is that if some of the leaders in charge of these tracks do not manage the situation, some of these trolleys might switch tracks, spreading the pandemic."

Now imagine a set of these trolley problems existing in parallel, with potential victims approaching the many millions. The lever is manned by a leader and a committee of fellow decision makers, with millions of potential victims on the tracks. Nobody knows exactly how long each track is. One might be longer than the other, portending more deaths than the other. Is there a clear decision? The only thing that is clear is that if some of the leaders in charge of these tracks do not manage the situation, some of these trolleys might switch tracks, spreading the pandemic. This is a global game, in which cooperation is difficult but necessary. The Trolley Problem can frame the way in which governments make their decisions.

Rescue I and its Trolley Problem does help us to understand the decision-making of governments. This is because the problem pits two implacable bundles of negative rights against each other. Pull the lever to a second shut-down, and those who can safely isolate with sufficient capital will have their rights to live freely respected. Pull the lever to a controlled opening, and those who need to work will have their rights to a livelihood respected. There are plenty of losers one way or the other, and plenty of uncertainty. No choice dominates the other, and there is a chance that one decision will be modified over time as leaders are presented with new evidence. 

This is why downplaying COVID-19’s effects or its unique problems should be critiqued. Foot’s Trolley Problem gives us a starting point for doing this. By applying the negative logic versus positive logic contest in the Trolley Problem, we can crystallise the errors that define certain opposition to measured reopening policies. Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, notoriously clashed with state governments over even flattening the curve in the first place due to an apparent disregard for COVID-19’s threat. ‘Open Up’ protesters in states like Michigan in the United States view continued lockdowns as onerous and believe that life should go on in any case.

"'Open Up’ protesters in states like Michigan in the United States view continued lockdowns as onerous and believe that life should go on in any case."

These positions stem from a view that staged and cautious reopening strategies are more like Rescue II: the protestor’s negative rights to liberty are traded for the positive rights of those who are at risk from open COVID-19 spread. This is how President Bolsonaro and the US state level protestors view those in favour of careful reopening as selfish and demanding.

This negative vs positive Rescue 2 account of lifting restrictions in a state from the first wave of COVID-19 is argued as common sense by its group of proponents. Opening up at all costs is clearly a better outcome. Therefore, the groups that oppose this account do not see sense. In reality, both groups have their right to life at stake, removing the protestors’ privileged ground of critique.

The Trolley Problem can teach us two essential lessons. First, authorities shouldn’t promise what they can’t deliver. The messaging around policy has to be contingent on the growth of new facts. Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister, does this well, underscoring his shut-down messaging with the proviso that these policies might last for many months longer than the initial timeline. Second: solving this global cooperation problem requires global cooperation. Some of the states that were most involved in the spread of the virus might hold the key to stopping its spread. The only certainty in this uncertain time is that safely stopping the COVID-19 trolley will be a collective effort. If governments do not work collectively, everyone’s negative right to life - the freedom that prohibits others from taking it - will be at stake. 

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