ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Harvard’s Trolley Problem

The most troublesome of questions, the relationship between intellectuals, truth and truthfulness is discussed. The site for the investigation is Harvard University, whose motto is Veritas (truth), and the case discussed is Harvard’s long association with the disgraced billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, convicted for paedophilia but whose relationship with Harvard continued long after the conviction. Using the details described in the report of the internal committee, it is argued that a huge gulf exists between the intellectual’s ideal of “speaking truth to power,” the illusion, and the practice of complicity, falsehood and co-option by power, the reality. The analytical method advocated is the “trolley problem,” which is used to highlight the difficulty of moral choices.

The author would like to thank Harsh Sethi, Ramdas Menon, Tridip Suhrud, Thomas Abraham, Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Siddharth Peter deSouza for comments on an earlier version of the paper. The responsibility for views in this paper are, however, his alone.

One of the most popular lecture series ever, counting both physical attendance and the millions who have tuned in on YouTube, is Michael J Sandel’s “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” His brilliance lies in his use of moral dilemmas to introduce complex issues of moral choice if we wish to build a fair and just society. Sandel’s favourite example, with which he begins his series, is the trolley problem. Should we intervene and pull the lever on a runaway trolley, redirecting it onto a track and kill one, or abstain and allow it to continue on its existing path, and kill five? Sandel informs us of the moral costs of each option. What, then, is the right thing to do?

The 1 May 2020 report on the Jeffrey Edward Epstein case, by the vice president and general counsel of Harvard University, Diane E Lopez and her team, would present Sandel with an interesting trolley problem. Imagine that he is standing on an overbridge when he sees the trolley car carrying the Report Concerning Jeffrey E Epstein’s Connections to Harvard University hurtling towards him. If he pulls the lever, the trolley will go towards his classroom made up of moral theorists, lawyers, analytical philosophers, management scholars; in sum the entire Harvard faculty, who would subject the report to withering critical scrutiny. By doing so, the “truth” would be safeguarded but Harvard’s reputation as the social embodiment of Veritas would be seriously harmed. This is option one. Option two is for Sandel to let the trolley continue on its way and let Harvard’s Epstein’s problem die with the report’s publication. All those concerned could then return to their normal life, treating the case as merely an unfortunate error of judgment and not the “Lord of the Flies” moment that it actually is. The options before Sandel are clear: Uphold the “truth,” but by doing so, damage the university’s standing, or compromise the “truth” and protect the university. What is the right thing to do?

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Updated On : 4th Aug, 2020
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