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Joe Manchin’s filibuster-sized Talmudic trolley problem — and ours

Last week, the GOP may have filibustered the future of American democracy. Senate Republicans used this parliamentary tactic to prevent the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. When the vote fell short of 60 — the threshold needed to pass the measure — the Democratic senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin, told reporters he was “very, very disappointed, very frustrated that politics has trumped — literally and figuratively — the good of the country.”

But the vote did not trump Manchin’s adamant opposition to eliminating the practice of the filibuster. “I’m not willing to destroy our government,” he declared in the same briefing with reporters. Q.E.D. Even extra-terrestrials now know that as Manchin goes, so goes the filibuster’s fate: In the evenly split Senate, this conservative Democrat’s vote is, in effect, the only vote that counts.

Inevitably, Manchin’s stance has caused lots of teeth gnashing among most anyone who cares about our nation’s fate. Unfortunately, it has caused little reflection over the legitimacy of Manchin’s reasons. A thought experiment might help. What if we were to imagine ourselves not in a nation hurtling towards disaster but instead on a trolley car hurtling towards a group of rail workers? Or, for that matter, standing between a group of people and an arrow hurtling towards them?

Thanks to the recent television series “The Good Place,” which managed to make viewers both chuckle over and chew on serious philosophical questions, trolleyology has become something of a thing. The term refers to an ethical dilemma posed by the philosopher Philippa Foot a half-century ago: You are standing near a track-changing lever when you see a runaway trolley car barreling towards five rail workers. By pulling the lever, you can divert the trolley to another track. But wait — there, too, is a rail worker.

What do you do?

With great concision, Foot thus staged the clash between the consequential and deontological schools of moral philosophy. The former, which often goes by the name of utilitarianism, seeks the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number of people. The latter, on the other hand, insists that certain laws or rules must never be broken, even if this means the greatest number will get snookered or have their lives snuffed out.

Foot was the first to propose trolleys, but not the first to pose the moral dilemma. Stretching back as far as antiquity, various biblical passages, from Leviticus to Samuel, riff on the problem. More recently, the 20th century Talmudic scholar Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, known by the same name as his principal work, the Hazon Ish, explored the dilemma. In a work that predates Foot’s article, Hazon Ish offered the arrow dilemma, where a bystander sees an arrow speeding towards a large group of people. He can deflect it from its course only by redirecting it towards a smaller group.

While the arrow, unless shot by Hawkeye, could not pierce more than one bystander, we nevertheless find ourselves in the same spot as with the trolley: left with only bad choices. What strikes me as crucial is that both halakhic commentaries and philosophical arguments tend to come down squarely on both sides of the question. Take the Hazon Ish, who recognizes the power of the consequential claim — “We have to try to reduce the loss of Jewish life as much as possible” — while acknowledging the deontological primacy of the biblical command not to kill. At the end of the day, there is no endpoint to his commentary. It cuts both ways.

Similarly, moral philosophers have debated the trolley problem, along with its many fiendish variations, for the past half-century without reaching an endpoint. In fact, it has meant more than one philosopher reaching for their gun. When David Edmonds, author of “Would You Kill the Fat Man: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us About Right and Wrong,” approached one famous ethicist with the problem, the latter growled: “Sorry, I just don’t do trolleys.”

When it comes to the future of American democracy, though, we have no choice but to do trolleys or arrows. This applies to both consequentialists and deontologists. The first camp, which dominates the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, is eager to divert the careening trolley away from the many towards the single worker — or, in this case, single rule. If the filibuster stands between efforts to repair the climate, strengthen voting rights and broaden Obamacare, it stands to reason to run it over. As New York Times columnist Ezra Klein notes, the fate of the filibuster “looms over every other decision” facing the Biden Administration.

Yet the deontologists — those who insist on the sanctity of this institutional commandment — are no less categorical. Their warning, in effect, is “Thou shall not nuke this rule.” It is, argues USA Today columnist James Robbins, the last vestige “of doing the people’s business that was rooted in the norm of compromise.” Once it is kaput, so too will be our political system.

At the end of the day, night always follows. But the difficulties posed by the darkness depend on how well we prepare for it. In the case of the filibuster, as in the case of the trolley, there is no single and right answer. It may well be that our democratic future balances on how closely we attend to and acknowledge the legitimacy of one another’s arguments.

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston. His latest book is “The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas.” He is a contributing culture columnist at the Forward.


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