A train is barreling down the tracks toward a split. The way the train is directed now, it will hit and kill five people tied to the tracks. You are standing at a switch station and could change this with the throw of a lever to instead direct the train down a different track where it has the potential to only hit and kill one person tied to the tracks. Do you throw the lever?
This thought experiment is asked in nearly every philosophy 101 class, and if the students don’t change their major after hearing it, it’s revisited in several more classes to come. It’s the basis for the principle of utility, the core concept in utilitarianism, which essentially states that an individual should act in such a manner that maximizes the happiness, synonymous with utility, of the greatest number of others.
The problem with this philosophy when applied to governing is oftentimes the actions that can maximize the happiness in the greatest number of people in the short term, such as entitlement programs, have abstract negative consequences in the long term, such as the tax rate needed to collect enough revenue to offset the costs of such programs.
Thus when government can act in a way that both maximizes happiness to the greatest number of people and minimizes abstract threats such as costs, it should be celebrated. This is why Mayor Joe Meek, the Crystal River City Council and everyone involved in the reclamation of the manatee statue for the new city park deserve recognition.
A brief editorial disclaimer: Mayor Joe Meek and Councilman Ken Brown are past clients of Winsler Consulting, the Concurrent’s parent company.
Wednesday’s installation of the statue in the park was a decision that should be greeted with great praise, a sentiment echoed by a March 26 Chronicle editorial. The statue came to the city park by way of an exchange with the mall in forgiveness of $95,200 worth of outstanding fines. The city council unanimously approved the trade on March 8.
Let’s counter some potential criticisms that will inevitably arise. The first is that the forgiveness of the fines is money out of the taxpayer’s pocket. The fines stemmed from a faulty sprinkler system that has since been fixed, but the fines had remained unpaid for years.
The statue itself is appraised at $185,000 and the city did actively explore the costs of commissioning another statue from scratch, all of which exceeded the trade amount.
If the statue saves us money, the cynical critic may continue, certainly the installation will cost us money. The installation, which was done by a local contractor, cost $2,500 still keeping it well under the price of collecting the fines or starting from the beginning.
Who cares about a manatee statue, the cynical critic may pivot, when there are dilapidated structures all around? Isn’t it a bad look for the city to be celebrating such a small piece of beautification while so much work remains?
We want our government to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. To think the negotiation of this statue is mutually exclusive to the ability to address abandoned buildings is an incredibly myopic view of hardworking elected and appointed officials.
To shift from philosophy to psychology, there’s a concept called cognitive distortions in which we adopt certain mindsets to maintain a negative outlook of the world. I teach media ethics and work with my students to recognize when these cognitive distortions arise, which they do all too often in media.
The distortion that is most prevalent this time of year is called discounting the positive, which is to downplay personal success because of external factors. This is most common in late April as seniors graduate from high school or college only to dismiss this hard won achievement as something most everyone does so it isn’t anything special for them personally.
Having worked with the Mayor and Councilman Brown, I can say with confidence that the quality of their character and work ethic is such that the guilt of celebrating this while there is much work left to be done probably lurks somewhere in the back of their minds. It shouldn’t.
They should join the rest of the council and community in truly enjoying this one. It does the most good for the greatest number of people without the burden of future cost, and that’s all too rare in government.