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.
The questions range from the personal to the timely. Are we, the audience members, liberal? (90.55 percent yes.) Are we white? (91.18 percent yes.) Do we use social media? (67.29 percent yes.) Do we believe in absolute freedom of speech? (61.68 percent no.) Is violence sometimes the answer? (51.16 percent no.) Would we pull the lever to save five people? (70.94 percent yes.) What if, instead of pulling the lever, we had to push a fat man over a bridge to save five lives? Could we do it? (71.05 percent no, almost exactly the same percentage that would pull the lever the first time.) “It’s different when it’s a person, isn’t it?” Drummond notes, as if pondering our inconsistency.
These votes tend to play out as if the audience is participating in a game of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? While we vote, on small devices that are given out before the show begins, jaunty music plays and a giant clock projected onto the stage ticks down the time remaining. The votes are interspersed with Drummond’s narrative, a strange, meandering story about how he got involved with the anti-fascism movement and ended up being arrested for punching a white supremacist. Drummond seems to want to use his personal experiences to illuminate the questions at hand, but his gonzo style means it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s creative license.
As the show proceeds, the tone of the recurrent trolley questions gets darker, as if to emphasize to the audience the potential consequences of even the most theoretical questions. Would we save one innocent person to kill five nonviolent neo-Nazis? Should we vote for Drummond to dox a Scottish white nationalist—who pops up a handful of times in the story—right then and there? (On the night I attended, the audience voted “yes,” and Drummond dutifully typed the man’s name and address into a comment section on a website that may or may not be real.)
Drummond is an engaging host, although the show’s frequent jumps in style and tone sometimes make him feel like an interrogator rather than an entertainer. The pace often drags in his measured descriptions of his friendship with a mentally ill Scottish beekeeper obsessed with bringing down the “Nazis” who were overtaking his town, and the narrative doesn’t cohere as well as it should with the questions The Majority asks. But the show’s concept is a fascinating one, exposing the foibles and contradictions embedded in the minds of an audience of majority white, liberal, non-male theatergoers—which is exactly the audience Drummond wants to target, although conservatives who attend might find themselves in the majority more than they’d think. When he asks people to vote on whether they believe in absolute freedom of speech, and only 38.82 percent say yes, he pauses. “Liberal,” he says, with ironic emphasis.
By the end of the 90-minute production, after Drummond has shared his disgust with himself for, as he puts it, “punching a man for having an opinion,” the audience seems shaken. When he asks us again whether it’s okay to abuse someone for something they personally believe, 87.64 percent say no. He has, essentially, converted us. But the ease with which he’s done it is yet another unnerving element to bolster his argument—that few of us really know or deeply consider what we’re voting for.