Sunday, July 9, 2017

Terrorists, Collateral Damage, and Trolley Problems

Moral philosophers in the analytic tradition like to run thought experiments of a kind known as the trolley problem:
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.

2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person
A recent movie, Eye in the Sky, posed a problem with a similar form. Instead of five people tied to a track we have five terrorists having a meeting inside a private house in Nairobi. Instead of a person tied to a sidetrack we have an innocent young girl selling bread on the street outside that same house. An explosion that kills the terrorist will likely kill the girl as well. Do we do it?

That’s the basic situation. In fact, things are more complicated. Three of the terrorists are hold high-level leadership roles in the organization. The other two are suicide bombers who have just donned explosive vests. Presumably when the meeting is over they are going to public places and kill themselves, along with tens if not hundreds of others. So we can’t wait for the girl leave. But, of course, we don’t really know about the timing of things.

As for We, we are several levels of military and civilian leadership in Britain and American plus the remote pilot who flies the drone and who is the one who actually executes the order to bomb the house. The drama lies in the back and forth decision-making and buck-passing running in counterpoint with events on the ground.

The house is bombed and the girl dies, but only by seconds. If she’d been a bit quicker, if the bomb had been released half a minute later, she’d have lived while the terrorists would still have been killed.


It's a good film.

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