The well-known story of the dilemma of the train conductor goes something like this:
You are a conductor on a train, but all of a sudden the brakes on the train stop working. Ahead of you is a fork in the tracks. An evil villain has tied down five elderly men onto one track and one child onto the other. Which way do you go? Do you choose to sacrifice five to save one child’s life, or do you choose to sacrifice the child for five total saved lives?
A less well-known story of a privileged college student goes something like this:
I voted for the first time in the 45th presidential election. My decision there was not so much a dilemma than an obvious answer, but my distaste for politics will stop me right here to discuss further about this subject. The outcome of the election brought on drama all throughout the media and across platforms online, and with it came a surge of information of policies, laws and social problems that I had not even imagined the possible existence of. I felt as though I were a horse whose side blinders had been removed. I felt as though my quiet self consumed in academics and personal interest had been swept away by my own ignorance.
One of these insights that came to me only recently involved what it meant to work for a “big company.” My knowledge in economics or politics is severely limited. A couple Wikipedia articles of past presidents and histories of their economic policies are enough to give me a taste of the long and complicated fight that pervade through pretty much all levels of wealth. Then the “big bad company” is quite easily understood as an enemy to some and a tool for others. Involvement with federal affairs that cause consequences in economic, environmental, ethical and social ways, monopolization of certain markets that caused the discomfort and unfortunate futures of millions and an ugly gap between the rich and poor that seem to only widen.. the moral problems are quite certainly there.
But in the bubble that I contained myself in while working as an intern at Facebook and attending a higher-end private college, I found that such things were not discussed enough. Some people just didn’t care. Others saw it as a stepping stone, like it was a sort of tool to get to the next level with more ease. It didn’t seem to me that anyone was deliberately ignorant, either. Rather, the focus of company or school news mainly looked into what good they were doing for the world. The bad was never looked into. Bringing up a topic like so brought shrugs from most. It seemed, anyway, like those who did care had never existed here or had already left.
This isn’t a rant on Facebook, nor do I intend to make it sound like one. The train conductor has to make a decision at some point, and with either decision they will be struck with guilt. The thought of leaving a company like Facebook and declaring you will work for what’s purely good for the world is ideal at best. On the other hand, I’m not denying that there are indeed great people at Facebook who do amazing things for the world with good intentions, despite the more negative consequences that may be commented on as “side-effects.” Admitting to guilt is hard. No one likes to say they were wrong.
So what are we to do? Struggle endlessly, in constant suffering resulting from this guilt that we are powerless beings with little control over the future? Shake our heads and repeat to ourselves that we didn’t do it, that we aren’t the bad ones, while pointing shaky fingers at others? These are rhetorical questions, but equally legitimate ones that drive many of us into an existential crisis that we all try to hide away in a hole somewhere in our hearts. I don’t want to debate about whether all humans are at birth born good, nor do I want to argue what is “good.” But for the sake of this post, I wish to think about how beautiful it is to hear an infant giggle in pure joy. Fact: all humans are infants at some point in their lives.
Suppose this true, then our focus needs to be on what we think is good, despite what others may say. One popular argument that is given in favor of sacrificing the five elderly men in the conductor’s dilemma is that a child holds a future ahead of them. What if they are the next Gandhi? Bill Gates? Hitler? The sub-twenty year old self that I am likes this argument, not just because I would survive this train tragedy but also because I am reminded that my future is yet undetermined. Whatever decision the conductor makes, the intention he had is what matters, and nobody can really blame him for making a decision that he thought was right at the moment. In the same way that I am tied down on the train tracks, I hold the track switch for a different set of five men and one child. My decision in the long term can affect others in perhaps vastly different ways as seen by others, but my intentions would have been for the better — and no one but I can blame myself for the outcome.
Sometimes I feel as though the human race has come great measures in making technological advancements yet has in comparison developed far less in societal aspects. Why and how is it that the fictional stories of robots and artificial intelligence has become a reality in such a short period of time, yet no utopian society has emerged, ever? In a point in our history where engineers and badass tech companies are taking over the world with their knowledge (aka, power), it’s time we directed our attention into utilizing science for society as well. It doesn’t take much: just ask, “am I giving good to the world with what I do?” Maybe the answer isn’t so clear at this moment. Just don’t feel guilty that the wrong side of the tracks were chosen because you did what someone else told you to do.