From the blog

Evangelicals Have a Trolley Problem

Evangelical support for Donald Trump has made me think about the Trolley Problem. You haven’t heard of the trolley problem? No worries–you were just too busy with your social life to pay attention to your Philosophy 101 course in college. The Trolley Problem is a popular ethics hypothetical. It’s ridiculously easy to find background info about it. Here it is in brief:

A runaway trolley is careening down a track toward five innocent workers. You’re standing to the side and unable to warn the workers. But you’re next to a switch that will divert the trolley onto another track. But this track has one innocent worker on it. Is it more ethical to (1) pull the switch and divert the trolley, thereby killing the one worker, or (2) do nothing, and allow the trolley to kill the five workers?

The Trolley Problem is interesting because your answer reveals your deeper assumptions. Is your driving consideration the consequence of your choice? Then you likely said you’d kill the one person to save the five. But if your driving consideration is the process of your choice, you’d likely refuse to kill a person by pulling the switch.

Things get even more interesting when we tinker with the factors.1 Let’s say you said you would pull the switch to divert the trolley:

What if the one person on the other track was a close family member? Would you change your answer? Why?

What if, instead of pulling a switch, you had to physically push someone in front of the trolley? Would you change your answer? Why?

And that brings us back to Trump. For evangelical Christians who support Trump,2 this isn’t just one isolated choice. It reveals deeper assumptions about their view of the world. For instance, they seem to believe:

  • Only one or two political issues “really matter.” I’m both pro-life and pro-religious liberty. I think both these issues are important. And the Trump administration has made (a little) progress on them. But I think other issues are important: racial reconciliation, sound economic policy, and an immigration approach that doesn’t require separating toddlers from their parents at the border. On all these fronts (and many others) Trump has been a disaster. Supporting him indicates that, so long as a few token steps are made on abortion and religious liberty, literally every other issue can spiral into chaos.
  • The ends justify the means. This sounds harsh–especially because it’s the kind of thing the Religious Right used to lampoon. But it’s hard to escape. Donald Trump is an obviously and deeply immoral person. This is true whether we’re talking about his personal life, his professional life, or his general temperament. He’s consistently severe and impenitent. If you nonetheless throw your support behind him because he’s the only means to your desired end, then you probably believe the end justifies the means.
  • Now is more important than later. Pro-Trump evangelicals often take an apocalyptic tone on the need for Trump: Without Trump, we lose the Supreme Court FOREVER! If Trump fails, then religious liberty is DOOMED! If we don’t cash in our credibility now, then we will NEVER GET ANOTHER CHANCE!

Despite the rhetoric, time will keep passing beyond the 2020 election. Yes, getting Gorsuch was helpful. But there will be other Supreme Court openings. Yes, getting some pro-life executive orders was nice. But later administrations can reverse them. And decades from now, when Trump is long gone and most of his evangelical supporters are too, my generation (and the generations after that) will have to clean up the mess. We’ll have to convince a polarized people that being pro-life doesn’t mean being anti-immigrant. And that religious liberty isn’t just an “excuse for bigotry”. But the legacy of Trump will make those arguments much, much harder. Supporting Trump today suggests you probably don’t care about those problems tomorrow.

Wow, that pop-philosophy talk was fun. But it gets better: my next post will (gasp) give a series of ethics hypotheticals! This blog is about to get really ethical. And really hypothetical….


1  You all should watch The Good Place on Netflix. In addition to being hilarious, it gives a serious examination of ethical philosophy. In its second season, it devotes an entire episode to the Trolley Problem.

2  I intentionally left this vague as to whether I’m talking about someone who enthusiastically supports Trump, or someone who just plugged their nose and voted for him. Obviously, there’s a big gulf between those two poles, but making these distinctions is beyond the scope of this post…


Photo from Wikipedia

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