Solving The Trolley Problem Of American Self-Government

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Alan Keyes Former Assistant Secretary of State
Font Size:

Not long ago I read a piece by Newco CEO John Battelle in which he opined that “Self-Driving Cars Are not “Five years away”.   His premise is that “the technology is pretty good, and will only get better.  But self-driving cars raise major questions of social and moral agency—and it’s going to take us a long, long time to resolve and instrument the answer to those questions. And even when we do, it’s not clear we’re all going to agree, meaning that we’ll likely have different sets of rules for various polities around the world.”

He illustrates his point with “a modified version of the Trolley Problem”:

imagine you’re cruising along in your autonomous vehicle, when a team of Pokemon Go playing kids runs out in front of your car. Your vehicle has three choices: Swerve left into oncoming traffic, which will almost certainly kill you. Swerve right across a sidewalk and you dive over an embankment, where the fall will most likely kill you. Or continue straight ahead, which would save your life, but most likely kill a few kids along the way.

Mr. Battelle goes on to suggest that current traffic laws, premised on the driver’s personal responsibility, make it likely that a driver who made a choice that resulted in hitting the school kids would end up “going to jail.” So, the human individual at the wheel has an incentive to avoid responsibility for the deaths that would occur.  But, he reports that “Mercedes Benz, which along with just about every other auto manufacturer runs an advanced autonomous driving program, has made a different decision: It will plow right into the kids.”

Battelle avers that Mercedes Benz’s decision reflects its corporate commitment to “safety, security and privilege for its customers.  So. its automated software will chose [sic] to protect its passengers above all others. And let’s be honest—who wants to buy an autonomous car that might choose to kill you in any given situation?”  Battelle’s use of the word “privilege” arrested my attention. It brought to mind the scene in A Tale of Two Cities, in which an 18th century Aristocrat, rushing by carriage through the crowded streets of Paris, takes the life of a tradesman’s child. As I have noted before, Charles Dickens pointedly captures “the Marquis St. Evremonde’s casual contempt for the child whose life he extinguishes.  The Marquis holds the commoner’s life to be of no account, not just in comparison to his own momentary whims, but even in comparison to the animals that serve his vanity and convenience.

Thanks to the materialist preoccupations of the socialist ideology that now appears to prevail among the corporate achievers who fancy themselves to be the kings and queens of America, Mr. Battelle’s reference to the profit motive for Mercedes Benz decision is to be expected.  But the reference to “privilege” (outside the currently trendy context of purported racism) is telling.  It points to the achievers’ less-frankly vaunted ideology, elitism.  That, in turn, leads one to reflect on its essentially anti-American character.  The elitists viscerally reject the political reasoning of the American Declaration of Independence that begins from the proposition that “all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”   By placing the acknowledgment of human equality in the contest of God-endowed right, they made clear that their measure of equality applies a standard true to the distinctive aspect of human nature…for which there is no measure but within each human heart.

In the minds of the elitists the ancient Greek philosopher’s assertion that “man is the measure of all things” becomes “we (the nobility, the gifted, the achievers, the elite of our society”) are the measure of all things.”  Whatever prowess, talent or circumstances provide the energy by which they rise above the rest of humankind, becomes the rule by which all others are to be judged.  That is the rule by which others are to be valued, or else held to be of no account.  This is the understanding that translates the idiosyncratic causes of their particular success into a species of law (privilege- from the Latin privus – “one’s own, individual,” + lex (genitive legis)—“law”.)

Now, to drive this point home:  However much it is camouflaged to look like a contest between opposing forces, the 2016 election is part of the elitist faction’s offensive against the principled egalitarianism of America’s Founders.  They hate that egalitarianism.  They especially hate its reliance upon God, which turns the crux of human judgement about right and wrong from a false dichotomy of evil into a matter of plain and simple trust in God’s rule.  That trust, exemplified in Christ’s self-sacrifice on the Cross, makes the alternative Mercedes Benz simply rejects (self-sacrifice) a matter of honor for those who know themselves to be “led by the Spirit of God,” and who thereby trust that “they are the Sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)

For such as they are supposed to be, there is no status higher than that of the Supreme Being; no privilege of nobility higher than that which belongs to those whom God “has predestined…for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ, ….”  For Christ “being in form already God, did not consider equality with God something to be held fast, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…. he humbled himself becoming obedient even unto death.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

All this Christ did so that the true life of all who receive and accept the grace he represents can be saved.  With this as the example and measure of the heart of “privilege,” Battelle’s version of the Trolley Problem ceases to be a conundrum.  The truly privileged, walking in the way of Christ, are not averse to take the plunge.  Not because they are eager to die, but because they trust in the Lord who lives in them as the loving heart of their righteousness. For “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,” nor the life that is nourished withal.

Unlike computers, those who trust in the Lord never face “binary” choices.  For they know that it is in God’s way alone that they truly live.  Apart from His way, as the Psalmist says, they are destroyed utterly.  Therefore, by losing their lives in the example of love that is the vocation of Christ, they not only save the lives of others, but their own. One God in whom we trust; One Choice by which we live; One life of love, given and so saved, forever.  Nothing trumps that.