This week’s topic is whether not deciding is itself a decision. Let us start by escalating things quickly: consider the classic 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. Unfortunately, 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. Which is the correct choice?
While there are many interesting aspects of the trolley problem, with many variants of the problem that may cause one to reconsider their views, this article is concerned with one particular question: Is actively choosing option (1), or doing nothing, equivalent to passively not making a decision? (It turns out this question has real-world consequences, as will be evident below.)
That is, is there is a difference between
- A) Considering (1) and (2), and deciding that (1) is morally superior; and
- B) Ignoring the decision, and thus passively allowing (1) to occur?
For one difference, consider the same trolley problem except that the trolley is initially headed for the 1 person, and you have to pull the lever to turn it to the 5 people. In such a case, someone using thought process (A) would STILL choose (1), to have the trolley hit 5 people, whereas someone using thought process (B) would now “choose” (2), allowing the 1 person to be killed.
In the original case, it is difficult to justify non-decision; however, one would most likely be viewed as innocent if one made no decision and allowed the trolley to kill 5. This is because the legal system generally can only punish decisions, not non-decisions. So the real question is, are the following equivalent?
- I) The trolley is already headed towards the 5 people, and you allow it to continue on course.
- II) The trolley is headed towards the 1 person, and you divert it to head towards the 5.
The outcome of both situations is the same, namely the 5 people die but the 1 person survives. However, it seems that if this were considered a wrong action, we would be able to legally punish (II), but not (I), since (I) could have been based on not deciding. However, should they be legally viewed the same? That is, should someone be accountable for not deciding?
One of the interesting examples of decision vs non-decision in a non-legal, non-moral context is blitz chess. When you have only a few minutes for the whole game, you cannot afford to spend a sufficient amount of time thinking about every move. Instead, you must ration your time as a resource, and in some cases choose to not think on a particular move. Speed chess is indeed based primarily on intuition, less so on cold calculation.
Thus in speed chess, it is very feasible that not thinking about a move is itself a decision. Once you have a lot of experience, you gain the intuition of which types of positions require calculation and which do not. It becomes possible to say when it is “correct” to not decide. In this case, not deciding is clearly a decision.
Decisions are based on available information, so a natural question relevant to whether one can be held accountable for not deciding is whether one can be held accountable for not knowing. Moreover, it is important whether someone can be held accountable for intentionally refusing to know. After all, no one would blame a child for thinking that Earth is flat. But when adults believe the world is flat, that is an entirely different issue, because most likely they have intentionally refused to hear the case of the round Earth.
The same goes for evolution, only there are significant national and state policy decisions made based on the refusal to learn about it. Of course, we wouldn’t hold a child responsible for their beliefs, but for an adult to use willful ignorance in decision making is inexcusable.
Whether willful ignorance is problematic in principle can be seen in a trolley variant. Suppose the person who has the power to pull the lever believes that the case is as in the original trolley problem. However, the side which supposedly has 1 person actually has 100.
The operator pulls the lever, diverting the trolley from the side of 5 people to the side of 100, killing all 100 people. Note that the operator cannot be blamed because of genuine ignorance.
Now consider an alternative scenario. The situation is the same as above: the operator believes that is a matter of 5 lives vs 1 life, but it is actually a matter of 5 vs 100. Before making the decision, someone else runs in, screaming that there are actually 100 people on the second track. It would be extremely easy to verify this, but instead, the operator refuses to listen to the new information and diverts the track to the 100 anyways, still clinging to the belief that there is only 1 person. In this case, the operator is being willfully ignorant.
(Can some lawyer explain if there are indeed differences in the previous situations?)
There are countless other examples where the intentional lack of information should not be a valid excuse for a bad decision. Suppose someone is about to receive the death penalty for a crime. A piece of evidence shows up that could provide reasonable doubt in the conviction. It would be absurd to refuse to see this evidence, especially because the refusal to see it would most likely be the result of the people really wanting this person to receive the death penalty, and that the extra information could disturb their beliefs.
A similar example is that some nation has borderline-quality intel justifying a war, and they decide to launch the war before they look at newer intel that could possibly negate the previous intel. Thus even if they are later found to be wrong, they would be able to use the ignorance argument by saying they didn’t know better at the time, even if they knew of the possibility of being wrong. There is a difference between genuinely believing the lack of contradictory information and the intentional refusal to look at (possibly) contradictory information.
It’s not a fine line that separates non-decision and the active decision that leads to the same result as in non-decision. Similarly, it’s not a fine line that separates genuine ignorance and willful ignorance. But even without a perfectly clear demarcation, the differences are real and these actions can and should be treated differently.