The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment, familiar to moral philosophers. Participants become involved in the following piece of unrealisable nonsense.
You are invited to imagine an out-of-control trolley, racing along railway tracks in the direction of five people who are strapped to the tracks in true 1930s silent movie style. You are in control of a switch which can side-track the trolley in the direction of one person, also immobilised. Do you pull that switch or not?
The scenario is irritatingly popular in the field of metaethics, the area of philosophy concerned with questions about the nature of right and wrong. The point of it is to stress-test our intuitions regarding the comparative plausibility of several ethical theories, each in competition with the rest. From that point of view, it is clever. On the other hand, its popularity is perplexing because the scenario is based upon a fundamental, and very obvious, misconception: it assumes that in this situation you have a real choice; but when you examine the detail, well, clearly, you do not.
There are certain situations in which you are able to act, but unable to choose. And there are situations in which while you feel free to act you are, actually, an understudy in a production which has removed your liberty.
When I first encountered the “Trolley Problem”, as an undergraduate in Belfast, I saw straight away that it relied on a fake notion of “freedom”.
Which brings us to the Government’s vaccination strategy.
This Government is about to introduce domestic vaccination passports, a codification (doubtless in digital form) of state-gifted permissions which will allow you to access what we had previously thought of as the unquestionable rhythms of human life; an inversion of the normal routines of liberty in which we, the people, hold the government to account rather than asking them when bedtime is.
You will, I am fairly sure, soon be required to disclose medical status in order to buy a pint.
How do we know the SAGE government is going to do this? Because it is talking about it as a serious possibility and you, dear reader, are not out on the streets protesting about that. We have failed to arrest the accelerating authoritarian tendencies of what once purported to be a “conservative” government. We have, in the words of the 1960s series The Prisoner, allowed ourselves to be: “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered”.
To everyone who puts on a mask in a shop: this was always how it was going to end up. You were the first call in the genealogy of oppression. When you conceded that point, the Johnson government grabbed it and then changed the rules of the game.
There may well be a good reason to take an experimental vaccine in order to dodge Providence. I have no problem with you if you take that view. But why insist that I must have one if you are confident that your “jab” constitutes a genuine inoculation?
These “vaccine passports” make no sense except as mechanisms of domestic control. This is an observation which floats free of any question about the efficacy of the vaccines themselves. It is not anti-vaxxer, to be sceptical about any specific vaccine. This is not a point that should require clarification, but in the mixed-up, muddled-up, world of Covid, apparently it does.
Anybody who wishes to take a vaccine should be free to do so. Anyone who refuses, similarly, should be free to do so. But any question of “choice” has, “Trolley Problem” style, been drained from the situation. This Government has introduced mechanisms of coercion which make the claim that anyone is “free” to make a choice about this issue laughable. That coercion sometimes presents as obstacles of a practical sort; but also, as forms of linguistic chicanery, such that Mr Gove is able with straight face to refer to “freedom passes”.
If you are required to show a vaccine passport to attend a concert, perform in that concert, drink a pint, pull a pint, buy a pint of milk, book a cottage, then the sinister deep state mechanisms of coercion have been fully implemented and you really have no “choice”. You are the protagonist in the “Trolley Problem”: ascribed a freedom that is by definition removed from you.
The sad thing I guess is this: that in that sort of social framework, even the people keen to take this vaccine cannot be honestly said to be choosing to do so. In a system where coercion is normal, consent of any sort is impossible.