A moral dilemma

July 9, 2017

So you’re on a bus. There’s no driver as such; steering is done by a curious collective process which ostensibly involves all of the passengers, some passengers’ views on the direction carry more weight for reasons which are unclear, but generally accepted. The speed of the bus can’t be varied, which means that maneuvers are based entirely on careful steering, and may occasionally require planning. Currently, the bus is pointing in a direction that will soon result in it plummeting over a cliff. Something probably ought to be done.

You know that the bus is heading for a cliff because some of the passengers are cartographers, who have dedicated their lives to refining the craft of map-making, and their maps assert, unequivocally, that there is a cliff located a little further along in the direction the bus is headed. It is true that the detail of the cliff varies a little between cartographers; some have it as a vertical drop, others think it’s maybe more like an 80 degree slope. Some details of the exact location and shape of the edge depend on whose map you look at. The one thing on which they all agree is that there is a cliff and, although they are generally fairly relaxed about the direction collectively chosen for the bus, they feel very strongly that it should be steered away from the cliff. They point out that with a bit of a detour, the bus will still get to its destination, but it will do so in a way which doesn’t involve plunging over a cliff to a fiery doom. It seems obvious that taking the advice of the cartographers and steering the bus away from the cliff would be an extremely good idea.

Unfortunately, while it is obvious to you and a number of others on the bus that the advice of the cartographers should be heeded, it is sadly not obvious to everyone. There is a group of passengers who call themselves “cliff skeptics” who do not believe the cartographers are telling the truth and are currently doing their best to persuade the other passengers that they should just keep going in the current direction and everything will be fine.

They are a curious bunch, the cliff skeptics. The first thing that you notice about them is that none of them has actually studied cartography, or has much of an idea about what it involves. A few of the more enterprising ones have looked up cartography on the internet, learned some of the words, and are quite skillful at convincing people that they know what they are doing; they have produced their own maps on which the cliff very conspicuously doesn’t appear and parade them as the equal of the real cartographers’ efforts. Some of them take maps produced by the real cartographers, but cut the cliff off and then claim that the flat bit on which the bus is travelling just sort of continues forever.

Some skeptics question the motives of the cartographers. They point to differences between some of the individual maps and claim that since there is some doubt as to the steepness of the cliff, it is as if that cartographers have no idea what they are talking about and should be ignored. Or, they point to the similarities between different cartographers’ maps and suggest that there is some huge conspiracy to pretend there is a cliff, because for some reason all of the “different” maps actually look quite similar. Surely mischief is afoot! Have they just copied off each other?

Some skeptics determine to make life as difficult as possible for the cartographers in the hope that they will stop doing cartography and the arguments over the direction will all go away. They demand all of the data the cartographers have used. They demand rough sketches. They demand correspondence. They demand to know who is paying the cartographers. They demand explanations either of why different maps are slightly different, or why different maps are the same. They do everything they can to waste the cartographers’ time, and to demoralize them. Are the cartographers doing cartography right? What is doing cartography “right” anyway? Is it drawing controversial maps with cliffs on them, or is it drawing maps without cliffs that don’t upset anyone. Why don’t they just stick to the flat bits that won’t cause alarm? Why are the cartographers conspiring in this way? Is it because they want the journey to take longer and cause inconvenience to the skeptics? Well, of course it is!

One skeptic whose views on the direction of the bus carry quite a lot of weight claims that the cliff is a hoax invented by the Chinese for the express purpose of making the journey take longer. Other skeptics claim there cannot be a cliff because God said in the Bible that he would not build another cliff for people to fall off after that time Noah had to fashion a very long slide for all of the animals. Some skeptics think a cliff would actually be good for testing the suspension of the bus, and others argue that even if there is a cliff, no-one has demonstrated that the bus is not capable of flight so why are we even worrying?

You know that the skeptics do not know what they are talking about – as we have seen, they are not cartographers. Furthermore, it is apparent to you that there is absolutely nothing – no argument, no piece of evidence – that could possibly persuade them to accept the reality of the cliff. Nothing, other than actually going over it by which time it will, of course, be too late (although you suspect that many of the skeptics have parachutes secreted in their luggage and are sitting suspiciously close to the emergency exit). The more you, or anyone else, tries to convince them by appealing to the facts (data returned by cartographers’ drones, by visual inspection of the distance with binoculars etc.), the more they are convinced that the whole thing is a huge stitch-up and the cartographers are just getting hysterical.

You try appealing to the rest of the passengers, but this is difficult for two reasons; firstly, because the people operating the public-address system on the bus prefer to give it the skeptics (so much more interesting and understandable than those drab cartographers!), and secondly because a key component of the skeptics’ shtick is to warn passengers not to listen to so-called “experts” as they are corrupt and cannot be trusted. Cartography is a difficult and sometimes subtle skill; it is sometimes quite difficult to explain how they are so sure there is a cliff ahead, and consequently many of the passengers fall for the blandishments of the skeptics. Maybe it is all a load of nonsense after all? And anyway, dealing with the alleged “cliff” will only make us all late.

So, to recap, you are heading off a cliff in a bus, and a loud and ignorant group of passengers is loudly proclaiming that there is no cliff and determined to frustrate any collective attempt to change the direction of the bus. They cannot be reasoned or argued with – any attempt to do so just makes them more sure of their own correctness. If you cannot find a way to convince everyone to change direction, you are doomed – but the skeptics are able to shout loudly and drown out attempts to convince the rest of the passengers. Faced with this situation, and the certainty of death if the problem is not dealt with, should you tackle the skeptics by force? Would lethal force be justified?