Last week after I pondered culling my two oldest ewes for the benefit of the rest of the flock, my friend Steve excitedly texted: “I love the sheep trolley problem…. But it doesn’t mean as much if you don’t really pull in each character. Really calculate the consequences. .. Describe the young healthy sheep. What do you owe them? Describe the older sheep. How much do you love them? Weigh their lives in front of us. Let us see it… I say trolley problem the shit out of it all next week.”
Steve is passionate about the written word, and has spent most of his working life writing and editing. But he dictates, rather than types, his texts, which sometimes mangles words. The first time I read the term “sheep trolley problem” I figured the software had transformed some complicated word into a nonsensical expression, and that the meaning would eventually become clear. The second time, several texts later, I was still mystified, so I asked “what is being transcribed as trolley problem?”
Steve became equally mystified. “What do you mean?” To which I replied: “You keep talking about trolley problem. I assume it’s a voice translation issue.” He was incredulous. “What???? What kind of education are they giving people at Yale?” He then said “trolley problem” was a very basic philosophical game. “Look it up.”
And yes, “trolley problem” turned out to be a thing, according to Wikipedia, an exercise in which one imagines situational dilemmas and considers the morality of their possible resolutions. The term came into popular use after philosopher Judith Thompson published an article entitled “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem.” She posited this scenario: George is on a footbridge over a track. Below he sees an out of control trolley heading for a group of five people. He knows he can stop the trolley by putting a heavy weight in front of it, but the only thing heavy enough nearby is a fat man. Would it be moral to throw the man onto the track to save the five others?
My first thought on reading this was relief that my ignorance of the term “trolley problem” did not mean my parents had paid good money for inferior educations at any of the fine institutions I had attended. The “trolley problem” article was published in 1976, well past the days of my college philosophy classes, when I already held my masters degree in anthropology, and after I studied Torts in my first year of law school, actually debating what are now called trolley problems. Steve is just a whole lot younger than I am.
My second thought was not to take Steve’s advice, though I regularly heed his thoughts on what (and how) I should write. Surely, it would be a timely discussion, since the Supreme Court, without explicitly acknowledging it, was involved in a major trolley problem argument this week over abortion. Whatever theoretical framework the judges put on the question, we know in real life that when states ban abortion in an effort to save the potential lives of children, thousands of women will die in illicit procedures, and many more will suffer in countless other aspects of their lives from carrying pregnancies to term against their will. But I didn’t think my decisions about sacrificing older ewes for the health of the younger sheep would easily fit into the trolley problem framework.
Why? Because real life messes with principles. From both a moral and practical standpoint, both of my old ewes, Nilufer and Number 45, stand in the same position. They are roughly the same age. Both are still integrated members of the herd, both still fully functional, capable of lambing, and seeming to enjoy their lives. But we sold number 45 to another farm as a lamb, which is why we didn’t bother naming her. Seven or eight years later, when they gave up sheep rearing, we took her back. She’s personable enough, but I never developed a relationship with her. Nilufer, in contrast, was delivered with veterinary help as her mother was dying of pre-eclampsia. She was beautiful, bottle-fed, raised partly in our mud room, and absolutely devoted to us, as we became to her. I’d make a different decision about culling her than I would regarding 45, not taking abstract principles of morality into account nearly as much as love.
Perhaps such a discussion would be useful, if only to show how so much of what we try frame as a sort of dispassionate moral analysis is really a justification for deeply ingrained personal preferences. But we hardly need my sheep prejudices to illustrate that. I thought Linda Greenhouse brilliantly dissected the Supreme Court arguments in the New York Times to show how far people, even judges on our highest courts, will go to make it appear that they are applying neutral moral or legal principles when they are really vindicating their personal (albeit religiously informed) preferences. Even if they have to engage in immoral behavior (like inventing facts) to do so (“The Supreme Court Gaslights its Way to the End of Roe”, Dec. 3, 2021)
There’s another reason I shied away from Steve’s suggestion. I am not comfortable with his premise that I am playing God with my sheep, decreeing who will live and who will die, operating under an unstated moral order that will be revealed through trolley probleming. Instead of playing God I feel I’m scrambling to deal with curve balls that God, if He exists, has thrown me. Also, these days I see the farm less as the expression of my creativity and more as a living organism with an order of its own.
Thursday the last of the trees I wanted to plant this fall finally arrived. Friday I planted, starting with a sugar maple in the allée in the front yard. The allée was planned for two rows of six trees each. Seven of them are at full height and are probably about 100 years old. When we moved in twenty years ago, we planted five replacement trees in the blank spaces where they were obviously intended to be. One of those did not make it, however, and I am planting to replace that one.
But I did not buy a tree well on the way to providing shade to the lawn and visual balance to the allée. I instead planted a knee high twig which is unlikely to be tall enough for me to stand under before my death. I’ll never see the completed allée as it was intended to be. But that, to me, is ok, because I am not the master of this domain. I am its servant.
WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK:
There’s ever diminishing produce that was harvested ahead of the frost:
Poblano peppers, $1 each, great for chiles rellenos
Daikon Radish, $2/each – large, great for radish salads, kimchee
Poblano peppers — great for chiles rellenos $1 each
Collard greens $3/bag
EGGS: $5/doz Production is down, but there are still a few coming in, so ask
Email us your order at email@example.com, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464 or email.