The trolley problem, that hoary old mainstay of philosophy syllabi and drunken ethical squabbles, is, to put it bluntly, hot right now. Just this year, it’s popped up in episodes of both Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Orange Is the New Black, as characters wrestled with the principles of utilitarianism and what it means to try to do good in the world. It’s also become a meme, as New York’s Select All explored last year: a framework for people to explore everything from pro-life principles to the death of Harambe.
The problem, in its most basic form, goes like this: A runaway trolley car is heading toward five people, and if it hits them, they will die. You, the problem solver, are standing by a lever that enables you to redirect the trolley to a siding where only one person is standing. By pushing the lever you will save five lives but be directly responsible for the loss of one. Do you pull the lever—seek the greatest good for the greatest number—or do nothing, and let fate take its course?
The issue with this particular conundrum, though, as Sarah Bakewell wrote in 2013, is that while people think they’re creatures of reason, our instincts are actually “fickle and easily manipulated.” And this is also the problem with direct democracy in general—when we’re asked to vote on matters of national importance, we tend to be uninformed, personally biased, or swayed by the strangest of factors. The Majority, a new show at London’s National Theatre by the performer and playwright Rob Drummond, is inspired by a wave of recent electoral upsets, from the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 to the Brexit vote last year. Throughout the show, Drummond asks a series of timely questions to which the audience votes “yes” or “no” on in real time, with the results immediately revealed, as he demonstrates how easily the shape of a question can alter its answer.