Captain America, Dr. Strange, and the trolley problem

Anmol Mohan

Spoiler Alert: Major Infinity War and Endgame Spoilers Ahead!

What is the Trolley Problem?

I was re-watching Infinity War on my flight last week. I realized a very prominent theme in the whole Thanos saga which brought my attention back to a familiar foe - the trolley problem.

Imagine you are driving a train and you notice that there are five workers on your track ahead who have no idea that the train is approaching. There is no way you can give them a heads-up, and they will lose their lives. The twist is that there is a lever that you can pull to switch tracks. However, the other track also has one worker who will die if you switch. Question is: Will you do nothing and let five people die? Or Will you pull the lever to save five people but become directly responsible for the death of 1 person?

The problem started as a thought experiment in Ethics and has been part of major debates over the last 100 years. Recently the problem has seen a revival with the discussion surrounding self-driving cars. Will you code the car to kill an animal if that means saving a human? Who will take the responsibility to decide? The organization, the CEO, the coder, or the independent ethics board?

While it will be great to have that debate, That is not the point of this article. I want to provoke some thoughts which are closer to our day-to-day life.

Avengers and the trolley problem

The beginning of the Infinity War is peculiar. Avengers are divided into two factions - Ironman side and Captain America side. While Ironman does not hesitate to propose destroying the time stone, Captain America wants to find alternatives.

There is a scene in Infinity War where Vision proposes to sacrifice himself to save billions (trillions?) of people. While Wanda has apparent reasons not to concur, Cap puts his foot down and says that we don't trade lives. Cap's character is extreme, and he will not hesitate to sacrifice himself, which Vision also points out.

These are some fascinating versions of the Trolley problem. Will you pull the lever if the person is a friend? Cap's solution to the trolley problem is to stop the train at any cost even if that means sacrificing himself. While Cap might pull it off, for most people this is not an option, or is it? Cap with his extreme sense Greater Good, and he wants to explore all the possibilities before he let innocents die. Or maybe he cannot stand bullies.

In the very next scene, Ironman proposes to fight Thanos on Titan. Dr. Strange insists that if he has to choose between saving colleagues or saving the time stone, he would prefer to keep his word. Unlike Cap, Dr. Strange takes a particular side. Now even though he gave up the stone to save Ironman in Infinity War, he only did that keeping in mind what is going to happen in the future. Hence, one can argue that eventually, he did keep his word.

Dr. Strange and Cap had different solutions for the same version of the trolley problem. Cap's idealism is narrated as naive because Vision dies, and Mind Stone is taken anyway. Dr. Strange's clarity is told as logical, which not only saves lives but also eliminates Thanos's threat.

Lose-Lose Situations and the Greater Good

Most people who are surveyed on Trolley problem say that they will pull the lever. However, saying and doing are two different things. Our beliefs, surroundings, social pressures shape our decisions, and hence, most people find it hard to act in these situations.

The trolley problem has been criticized for being too extreme to have any impact on daily life. It is real, and we hardly encounter Avengers like circumstances in our lives. However, the problem is not fictional. It impacts our work life in many different ways just that we don't realize that we are dealing with these problems.

Due to the limited resources, we often have to choose one option over the other. Sometimes there are no good choices, and both situations seem awful. However, these lose-lose situations are daily occurrences of managers worldwide. How you deal with them defines how successful your organization will be.

Some examples include:

  1. Organizations often face challenges of deciding the budgets of the departments. It is a challenge as favoring company's growth might mean compromising growth of individuals.
  2. In extreme cases, organizations have to cut headcounts to favor other priorities and keep the company afloat. The decision has to be made taking long term future of the company into consideration.
  3. The introduction of AI in itself is a trolley problem. A lot of jobs are being made redundant due to automation. However, no one can deny AI is good for humanity as a whole. If we towards empowering the current workforce, a lot of new jobs can be created as well.

If you think about it, you will realize that life is full of minor dilemmas which we have to deal with daily. There is no formula on how to solve these problems. They have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But the greater good is always the common denominator. One must decide which choice leads to the betterment of the group as a whole.

How can we decide?

We can look at the examples to see what works.

  1. Long Term over Short Term - Dr. Strange is a visionary (literally). He can think in time, and like a very skilled chess player, he can work out a large number of scenarios to see what will work eventually. His ability to focus on long term objectives makes his decision stand out.
  2. Ability to evolve - We can analyze the actions of Ancient One in Endgame. While she was reluctant to share the time stone initially, she corrected her conceptions. She was flexible enough to accept that her way of thinking might be wrong. Cap, on the other hand, never questioned his reasoning. He did not consider the possibility of sacrificing someone because of that's not in his character. You cannot blame him; he always pulled through before this.
  3. Rationality at crunch time - Ironically, Ironman (?) pulled a Cap. He sacrificed himself to save a lot of people. While Dr. Strange knew this would happen, Ironman decided to act once he realized that he does not have any other option. You cannot imagine Ironman doing this a few years ago. Also, note that he was trying to avoid this exact outcome at the beginning of the movie. No fixed solutions can apply to these kinds of problems, and decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

Also, I hate to break it to you, but Thanos himself was solving his version of the trolley problem at a cosmic scale. He invented a lever which will kill half of the world population to save the other half. In his mind that is better than the whole universe dying from resource crunch.

But wait, isn't Thanos a maniac?!

Yes. Which brings me to the last and most important aspect of the decision making - Empathy. Running the scenarios in your mind is not enough. You should be able to feel what others feel. A cold, heartless decision will end up being the worst in most scenarios.

Research and Further Reading:

Movie Analysis

Anmol Mohan

I am just trying to make sense of this world. I am interested in the hardest puzzles like Consciousness, Humanity and Multiverse. Sharing my honest learning during this journey.