Full disclosure: I hate the trolley problem. Sorry, Philippa Foot. No one ever talks about it seriously anymore ever since it has cemented its place in the hall of memedom. Also, it’s so abstract that no one has any reason not to turn it into a joke that illustrates how disconnected philosophy as a discipline is from reality. 

One thing that the trolley problem gets right, however, is the dynamic of competing interests. On a very general level, this thought experiment illustrates how difficult it is to arbitrate in a dispute between values. To a certain degree, the utilitarian and the Kantian share the same values. The former would agree that, in most cases, murder is wrong and that consistency in adherence to moral rules is usually very beneficial. The latter would agree that the raison d’etre of ethical decision-making is not the eradication of pleasure and subsequent institution of perpetual misery. This doesn’t change the fact that one view posits rational consistency as the basis of moral decision-making, while the other thinks the ultimate foundation is a hedonistic calculus. 

Thankfully, this is not an article that tries to superimpose these ethical frameworks onto the remote learning debate. In fact, my entire point in writing this is to say that the sides in this debate are not even close to being that different. From a Kantian perspective, one might oppose the University’s restrictive measures thinking that freedom is an absolute good. To violate an individual’s autonomy is to keep them from fulfilling their moral duty by choosing to do the right thing of their own volition. And from a utilitarian perspective, one could support it, saying society as a whole is better off when our social institutions support the most vulnerable of our members.

I won’t fence-sit. I don’t think the University’s caution in these first two weeks was necessary. You’ve likely already heard all of the arguments supporting my belief by now, so I won’t beat a dead horse. As we return to in-person learning, I am relieved that the history of my high school senior year did not repeat itself. I’m sure most everyone shares these sentiments. However, I was disappointed, and, in some cases, outright appalled by the responses to arguments supporting my belief. I saw everything from bad faith accusations of ethical egoism to deplorable personal attacks. 

To some of you all: you are being unfair, and I ask that you genuinely reconsider how selfish it is that I want New Haven businesses to succeed and the student body at large — not just myself — to reap the full benefits of our education while mitigating the mental health risks associated with remote learning. To the most severe responses, of which there were thankfully many fewer: you have demonstrated the same malicious impudence you have accused others of possessing. Also, do yourself a favor and look up why ad hominem arguments don’t work. 

I don’t intend to encourage any further ill will, though, nor does my point amount to “Why can’t we all just get along?” As I see it, disagreements are understandable when the issues at hand are complex, and what other word would you use to describe a global-scale cooperation problem? Similar to the trolley problem, though, the core values at stake: freedom, physical well-being, etc., are ones we all share. They are instantiated within this COVID-19 dilemma in a particularly tricky way, however. 

It’s much easier, now that many restrictions have been lifted, for students to arrive at a compromise. I hope that, as we return to the classrooms where we sit face-to-face with our peers, that we carry our civility with us. Not only do I think it’s healthy not to demonize your fellow students, but I also think it’s much harder to make a coordinated demand of the University regarding something we do all agree on once when we’ve dispensed with decorum altogether. So, tread with caution, classmates. You may need today’s foe to be tomorrow’s friend. If I can’t encourage you to be rhetorically charitable, at least be pragmatic. There are some things other than our preference for Mill or Kant that we must learn to set aside.

There’s an adage I at least imagine to be very old that I heard a lot growing up: don’t complain until you’ve already tried to do something about it. I think that’s especially applicable to the world of disagreements. If you must have your vitriol, save it until you’ve tried to persuade your interlocutor and failed. Otherwise, you’re not an ardent defender of what you think is right. Instead, you prefer the convenience of an enemy that flourishes at a distance. I use this hyperbolic language not because I think campus is rife with moral monsters of either persuasion in this debate. I only mean to stress that effective verbal combat is persuasive. And persuasion requires decency and nuance.

Elijah Boles is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college. His column runs every other Tuesday.