Dave Tucker

The Ethical and Psychological Roots of Statism

Posted on January 24, 2016
A woman tied to the tracks as a train approaches

The state has become involved in almost every aspect of daily life.  Where we work, what we eat, and how we make our medical decisions are all subject to legislation and police enforcement.  Smoking a particular kind of plant could land you in jail.  If you resist going to jail, you'll be killed if necessary, meaning the majority has decided it's worth killing another human being rather than let them smoke a plant.

What's interesting about this is, in the absence of a state, most people would not be willing to enforce these edicts themselves.  If someone found out their neighbor was smoking marijuana, they likely wouldn't drag him off to their dungeon and imprison him.  However, that same person will cast a vote on Election Day with the same effect.  How can this be?  Are most people just too cowardly to act on their convictions, or is something else going on?  The answer may be found in a 50-year-old ethical thought experiment, referred to as "The Trolley Problem".

The original trolley problem, introduced by Philippa Foot in 19671, goes like this:

"You’re standing by the side of a track when you see a runaway train hurtling toward you: clearly the brakes have failed. Ahead are five people, tied to the track. If you do nothing, the five will be run over and killed. Luckily you are next to a signal switch: turning this switch will send the out-of-control train down a side track, a spur, just ahead of you. Alas, there’s a snag: on the spur you spot one person tied to the track: changing direction will inevitably result in this person being killed."2

Consider the above scenario for a minute.  What would you do?  In effect, your choice is between doing nothing, and watching five people die, or pulling a switch, causing only one to die.  While it's not an easy problem for everyone, most people believe you should pull the switch3, though people usually can't say why that's the correct choice4.  Likely they invoke a kind of utilitarian ethic: the many outweigh the few.  It's obviously better that one dies instead of five.

The issue doesn't end there, though.  Another proposed trolley situation alters the context slightly:

"You’re on a footbridge overlooking the railway track. You see the trolley hurtling along the track and, ahead of it, five people tied to the rails. Can these five be saved? Again, the moral philosopher has cunningly arranged matters so that they can be. There’s a very fat man leaning over the railing watching the trolley. If you were to push him over the footbridge, he would tumble down and smash on to the track below. He’s so obese that his bulk would bring the trolley to a shuddering halt. Sadly, the process would kill the fat man. But it would save the other five."5

Again we have a situation where, if you fail to act, five people die, but if you do act, one dies but you save the other five.  From a utilitarian perspective, this "fat man" problem is the same as the "spur track" problem: one is killed to save five.  However, unlike with throwing the switch in the spur problem, most people are opposed to pushing the fat man.  Perhaps these two problems aren't similar enough to give a fair comparison.  Looking at one final trolley problem might be instructive:

"The runaway trolley is heading toward five people. You are standing by the side of the track. The only way to stop the trolley killing the five is to pull a lever which opens a trap door on which a fat man happens to be standing. The fat man would plummet to the ground and die, but his body would stop the trolley. Should you open the trap door?"6

The only difference here is you're farther away and throw a switch to drop the man, rather than push him yourself.  In this situation, people are still opposed to killing the fat man, but not as much as if they had to push him themselves7.

What's interesting about these problems is not the ethical questions themselves.  These kinds of thought experiments are the ethics of emergencies, not the sort of issues you struggle with day-to-day.  However, people's reactions to them can still be quite telling.  Up to 90% of people would have pulled the switch, but with the fat man, the numbers are reversed with roughly 90% electing not to push him to his death8.  How could this be?

If you want to learn in what situations one man is willing to kill another, there's no better place to look than the military, an organization that lives and dies by such decisions.  In his book On Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman explores the factor of physical distance between a soldier and his target, as well as the concept of group absolution.  In addition, I think the series of events that take place between a soldier's actions and the result of a kill are important.  I will refer to this as "causal distance."  In essence, someone will be more likely to kill someone by pushing a button than by using a knife.  These three factors are key to killing: physical distance, causal distance, and group absolution.

There is a strong link between ease of killing and physical distance.  Those killing at extreme ranges, such as drone pilots or artillery teams, have an easy time killing, and suffer few negative psychological effects9.  In fact there is often a feeling of "euphoria and elation" after a kill10.  It's not until killing becomes close, where you can see your target's face and hear him scream, that there begins to be intense resistance to killing.

"At close range the euphoria stage, although brief, fleeting, and not often mentioned, still appears to be experienced in some form by most soldiers. Upon being asked, most of the combat veterans whom I have interviewed will admit to having experienced a brief feeling of elation upon succeeding in killing the enemy. Usually this euphoria stage is almost instantly overwhelmed by the guilt stage as the soldier is faced with the undeniable evidence of what he has done, and the guilt stage is often so strong as to result in physical revulsion and vomiting."11

Group absolution is also a factor in both willingness to kill and resulting negative psychological effects.  It's easier to kill when you are part of a team and responsibility is shared.  This is especially true in teams that manage heavy equipment like a bomber, artillery, or a tank.  However, the effect is still prominent even in a gun battle at mid-range, as a soldier can never be sure it was they who actually shot an enemy12.  This is the same reason why firing squads shoot simultaneously.  None of the executioners can be sure it was their bullet that made the kill.  Group absolution is still tied to physical distance though, because when distance closes, it becomes more obvious who killed who.

Soldiers also maintain a variety of causal distances from those they kill.  Killing with one's bare hands leaves no doubt as to what did the killing, but using a gun has more causal distance.  A trigger is pulled, releasing a hammer, striking a blasting cap, which causes an explosion that propels a bullet towards a target, which results in a fatality.  Launching a missile has even more causal distance.  And it's not just the one pulling the trigger or pushing the button.  It actually extends much farther outward to include the entire military support staff and beyond.  The cook who feeds the soldiers probably doesn't feel very responsible for the killing those soldiers do, but that cook certainly had a hand in it.

Just like in war, physical and causal distances are at play in the trolley problems.  People are more willing to kill in these scenarios if they can do so from far away and with an intermediary device, such as a lever or switch.  While I'm not aware of any trolley problems that would include group absolution, I think it likely that people would be more willing to push the fat man to his death if it wasn't a solitary act, but rather a group effort.

I began by asking how someone who would normally never initiate violence against their neighbor is so willing to do it through the use of the political process, and the answer is now clear: democracy provides physical distance, causal distance, and group absolution.  If someone votes for the drug war, they are declaring this war mostly against millions of people they don't know and will never meet.  There is immense physical (and therefor emotional) distance.  The causal distance is even greater.  The causal chain between pushing a button in a voting booth and a flashbang grenade being thrown in to a child's play area is almost too long and complicated to follow.  Lastly, and seemingly most important for many people, is that they have majority backing for their position.  In a democracy, in order for a law to go in effect, in theory most people have given their support.

Democracy allows for the initiation of violence without the negative emotional reactions that would normally occur.  As long as ethical choices are driven by emotion instead of reason, our society will remain a war of all against all.


  1. Edmonds, David. Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. pg. 9-10. Print.
  2. Ibid., pg. 183
  3. Ibid., pg. 9
  4. Ibid., pg. 33
  5. Ibid., pg. 184
  6. Ibid., pg. 192
  7. Ibid., pg. 140
  8. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/books/review/would-you-kill-the-fat-man-and-the-trolley-problem.html
  9. Grossman, Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. pg. 97-98. Print.
  10. Ibid., pg. 112
  11. Ibid., pg. 115
  12. Ibid., pg. 111