Getting Off the Trolley: Jazz Formation for Modern Ethics

David M. Wilmington
Saturday, May 1st 2021
May/Jun 2021

Modern ethics—in the broad sense of “ethics since Kant,” in the narrow sense of “the notion of ethics that people now living have absorbed,” and in whatever other meaning of the term you might care to adopt—is not doing so well. A diverse chorus of witnesses (including G. K. Chesterton, Franz Kafka, Dorothy Sayers, Philippa Foot, C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Milan Kundera, Charles Mingus, Alasdair MacIntyre, Dave Chapelle, Stanley Hauerwas, Wynton Marsalis, Rowan Williams, and Ralph Ellison) has been pointing this out in various contexts for some time now.

One way to describe the problem, which sets up my argument below, is this: modern ethics is a trumpet player who knows only military marching band music and is trying to lead and dominate a set at the most sophisticated jazz club in town. His technique and preparation are good, he can play his music very well, but he is utterly useless to make good music in the actual context into which he has barged (insisting that he has all the answers to make things sound good and work well). Everything his fellow musicians play sounds “off” to him—rhythmically too loose, wandering far from what’s written on the page, playing with an overly flexible idea of which notes are “inside” the harmonic structure, and so on.

When his fellow musicians and the audience object—with whom and for whom he is supposed to be performing jazz excellently—he can only play his straight, square, and rigidly precise marching music all the louder. He insists that the good of making music will happen only when the other musicians conform to his assumption of what “good music” is, which for him is universally the same: a predictability and prescribe-ability. Sadly, even when the jazz musicians and the jazz audience (a community with famously broad tolerance for variety and risky experimentation) point out that the result would be merely a clamorous unison, the trumpet player suggests that everyone needs to conform even more rigidly; they must alter their expectations, definitions of “good,” and desires, and apply the name “jazz” to whatever noisy or brassy blat he’s been trained to create.

The argument I will make here, in favor of a “jazz model” for ethics, is certainly not a plea that the prescription for our ethical incoherence is to have “more flexibility,” or some other such tired but eagerly adopted (yet empty) slogan. Being a more flexible military marching band trumpet player does not make good jazz music. It just makes worse marching band music. Being more flexible in the Kantian approach does not make coherent the inherent misdiagnosis of the problem, because the problem begins before the diagnosis: Kant and his postmodern (and post-postmodern) legacy, even those who claim to be “against ethics” entirely, do not accurately see or hear the kind of creature they’re trying to heal. For a number of philosophical, ideological, and cultural reasons, they’ve adopted a false anthropology. Modern ethics, that is to say, and the politics that flow from it, is addressing the wrong kind of creature.


Modern ethics is hopelessly anti-relational, clunky, and rigid music. Far from swinging—the rhythmic recognition and harnessing of the velocity of entropy inherent in human life—the default modern ethic of a vague duty-to-be-nice is tin eared and tragically square. By its own account, it is grounded upon nothing for infinitely different people (who only happen to appear accidentally in temporal and spatial proximity to one another) in an inherently meaningless existence. It’s a soulless music. This clunkiness is now so manifest, however, in both tragic and comic ways, that even our pop culture is able to recognize and to present the problem.

Between May and October 2017, millions of television viewers were treated to at least three different pop-culture treatments of philosopher Philippa Foot’s famous ethical “puzzle”: the “Trolley Problem.” Familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory ethics class since the mid-1980s, and probably familiar to anyone roped into long debates about the ethics of abortion (Foot’s original frame), this hypothetical dilemma factored into episodes of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Orange Is the New Black, and, most spectacularly, The Good Place.[1]

The scenario puts you in the position (as a lone trolley rider/driver) of being forced to choose either to allow an out-of-control trolley to kill five people by continuing on its current track or to pull a lever that changes tracks and kills only one person. Variations on the problem change details, such as the number and identity of the people at risk (a random stranger, people you know, a famous artist, an important young scientist, very old and sick people, etc.), and philosophy teachers chart the decisions and interrogate the reasoning behind students’ usually oscillating choices and justifications.

While philosophical and theological ethics students and professors were no doubt pleased to recognize this classic quandary in all three television shows, I suspect that the gruesomely hilarious and literal presentation on The Good Place generated the highest number of text messages and social media posts. Chidi, the professor of ethics in the show, is whisked away from his comfortable classroom chalkboard presentation of the problem and “magically” placed on a real trolley barreling toward seemingly real people. Over and over, whatever choice he makes—including the choice not to act—yields a vivid and disgusting result.

As the show points out repeatedly in a running gag, everyone hates moral philosophy professors (sometimes even, or especially, moral philosophy professors themselves), so there is twisted joy in seeing the annoyingly zealous but indecisive preacher of ethical consequences serially traumatized by experiencing the “real world” horror of a thought experiment made flesh (and entrails).

Although often used in an attempt to clarify the hidden or denied grounds of our reasoning through ethical dilemmas, the Trolley Problem and its vivid television enactment best reveal the incoherence of nearly all modern moral reasoning. Used badly, the problem can lead students and teachers to believe that we form moral or ethical people primarily by posing scores of “if-then” hypotheticals, isolating data that matters, analyzing the possible results and justifications of different choices, and then choosing the decisions that align with whichever principle we decide to treat as authoritative or governing. Although Chidi, the poor moral philosopher, realizes that a computer might be able to process all of that fast enough to make a consistent and defendable decision in “real time,” human limitations—especially in the kinds of crisis moments favored by this approach—guarantee much less satisfactory and even messy results.

Rather than helping us reach a correct answer, or even a method for trying to determine the “right answer for you,” the Trolley Problem most starkly reveals that we make moral judgments without being able to explain why—or even which details should matter for our judging. It reveals inconsistencies that should challenge our confidence that we know what we’re doing when we make moral claims and decisions. But more important, it reveals that most modern Westerners seem to follow principles and a logic we can barely articulate and whose sources we cannot name. We can’t explain our instincts and intuitions or defend their sources, even when they’re pushing us toward the moral good. And this raises the key point: We are being formed without being conscious and deliberative participants in that formation.

It is this revelation on which I want to focus and build here. A few of the most popular engagements with the Trolley Problem (proposed by philosophical and legal theorists) note that people who respond to the challenge of the dilemmas presented in the problem often feel and argue strongly for their choice of action and strongly against the options they reject. These same people, however, are rarely able to articulate or clearly defend the basis for such passionately expressed interpretations and prescriptions.

As Yale professor Tamar Gendler notes, philosophers recognize strong evidence of a guiding intuition or subconscious principle governing the reactions and reasoning about moral action.[2] While modern philosophical analyses often move on from this recognition, or explain it by proposing that emotion or heuristic replacements for the real issues have taken over (simplified stand-ins for a rational basis), those working in virtues ethics and theology should insist we focus more on the question of a governing moral intuition or “instinct.”

One way of explaining virtues ethics is to emphasize character as the focus rather than the procedures and effects of decision-making. Where most modern ethics seeks to come up with a process or governing principle that could and should be available to and used by any and every person, regardless of background, education, and so on, virtues ethics centers on the particular person acting. A virtues approach aims to shape or form that person rather than seek a universally applicable set of rules or a flowchart usable by any person from anywhere or nowhere in particular.

Because of the attention given to the person or character being formed, virtues ethics can give an account of the inescapable “intuition” that even modern ethics recognizes as the true ground of moral reasoning and justification. What seems like instinctual or intuitive (or emotional) bases for making and justifying different decisions in the Trolley Problem is simply the performance of the character. Whatever its genealogy, and regardless of whether or not the moral agent attributes it to “just common sense,” the instinct or intuition reveals the character—which is always more fundamental than the universal flowcharts and decision procedures of most modern philosophy and ethics.[3]

A Proleptic Prescription

Moving from the diagnostic to the prescriptive, we can ask how we are to go about training and forming people to have such character. If the Trolley Problem has helped reveal the incoherence of moral reasoning, and virtues ethics offers a way of forming performers of well-ordered character, then the question of educating, training, and practice in virtues is of paramount importance. The Aristotelian tradition—and its modern proponents such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and many others—stresses the need to practice the virtues within a community constituted by a common account of the Good, and of the goods that lead toward it.

Even within such a community, however, one can feel overwhelmed considering the need for so many models of basic education: children’s catechesis, youth and continuing adult formation, and specialized training for those called primarily to engage people and institutions outside the community.

Wrestling with this question—how do we form people such that their actual personalities and characters simply are virtuous?—made me realize that virtues ethics seeks the training and forming of a performer. Furthermore, the performance imagined by Aristotle, Bonaventure, Aquinas, MacIntyre, and others is most decidedly not that of the hopeless and delusional marching band trumpet player. It is an ethical, moral performance of someone formed in habits of faithful listening, discernment, and courageous, properly-confident-yet-flexibly-relational action toward the Good—a harmony of skills and sensibilities best experienced in jazz improvisation.

In jazz, one improvises within a constructive and creative framework—the clearly defined harmonic structure and melodic context—that allows for dynamically relational performances among musicians because of the common language and goal of making good music. We can transpose this (simplistically for now) into moral formation by describing it as a training in order to go into all the world, improvising faithfully with everyone you meet within the harmonic structure and “idiom” of the gospel, as learned and practiced in the community of the church (and one’s own church). And, as even The Good Place eventually points out, since the modern sound of ethics is a teeming cacophony of competing claims, sudden assertions of novel principles as inarguably valid and shifting arbitrary standards, it seems improvisation is unavoidable. The question is whether or not one is, or even can be, prepared enough and practically wise enough to improvise and make good music while doing it.

Jazz builds appreciation for attentiveness, listening, and, most profoundly, “taking time.” With that appreciation comes a training and formation in further development of those skills—and this happens even for “mere listeners.” Of course, this is true of listening to and playing concert/classical music; but because of the improvisational nature of jazz, these skills are developed far more. To hear what this sounds like, we must practice hearing the performance of “musical character and ethos” within different contexts—especially if we hope to effect sophisticated and faithful improvisations necessary for contemporary virtuous living. For jazz, the performative context includes the immediate relationships of the people with whom you’re playing—individuals with distinct and formed personalities of their own, formed by similar but not identical parts of the tradition grounding the communal goal at hand (playing good music as defined by the broad but recognizable standards of jazz history). Already, we are straining the modern approach to ethics that proposes a universally, tradition-spanning, and transcendentally grounded duty—a mere formality without “content” we accept without considering any substantive or traditioned claims it might place on the character and application of that duty. The best jazz improvisation also entails attention to the context of tradition—a musical “great cloud of witnesses” encompassing a broad list of great musicians and composers.

Brief Exemplary Excursus

For example, in 1989, jazz trumpeter, composer, band leader, cultural commentator, musical educator, and eventual Pulitzer-Prize winner Wynton Marsalis released an album of Christmas music titled Crescent City Christmas Card. It featured his then-current septet plus guest musicians ranging from New Orleans clarinetist Alvin Batiste to legendary jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks to famed operatic lyric soprano Kathleen Battle. While the album consists almost entirely of “Christmas standards” and doesn’t push many musical boundaries—reflecting the ensemble writing and soloist personalities better developed on the albums Tune in Tomorrow, Blue Interlude, and Citi Movement—hearing familiar and beloved tunes performed with a jazz sensibility can serve as a valuable training tool to develop “ears to hear” what a jazz ethos and character can teach us about forming performers.

The performance of “Winter Wonderland” (available on numerous streaming and video services), although less than three minutes long, offers an excellent “bite-sized” introduction. If you sing along, over the top of the recording, you will recognize a few things immediately. When you first reach the bridge (“In the meadow we can build a snowman”), you directly experience the delayed and syncopated statement of the partial melody. Marsalis begins the notes that correspond to those words two beats late, and he continues that off-kilter delivery (relative to the expectations of the song played “straight” as written and usually sung) for the rest of the song. After repeated listening, you might realize there is only one chorus (i.e., a single time through the form of the song) of actual improvised solo—less than a minute where Marsalis makes up an entirely new melody.

Throughout the main statements of the song, he uses and plays around with the central defining motif of the song—a series of mostly repeated notes (“Gone away is the bluebird; here to stay is a new bird”) that builds to a long series consisting of four short sequences of repeated notes, each of which descends to the next, lower series of repeated notes (“To face unafraid, the plans that we made, walkin’ in a winter wonderland”). However, during his improvised solo, which begins at 54 seconds and goes until 1:44, he expands the shape of the melodies by creating tight ascending and descending scale patterns with the occasional leap.

After a few careful repeat listenings, you might also notice the musical conversation going on between Marsalis’s trumpet and Marcus Roberts on piano. The most obvious evidence of this performance of relationality comes when Roberts imitates and completes Marsalis’s phrase at 1:32–1:39, but experienced listeners and musicians hear constant interplay—rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic—not only between the trumpet and piano but also between the drums and piano, the drums and trumpet, and, via his choice of chord tones to play and emphasize on different beats, the bass and everyone else.

When he finishes the short solo and returns to the main melody, Marsalis intensifies the rhythmic displacement using the repeated note motif. As he creates a disjointed and rhythmically displaced effect by syncopating those repeated notes, starting at 1:44, for example, and especially from 1:56–2:03, we can hear a mild version of the kind of the improvisational and competitive counterpoint Marsalis admires in the Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines duet “Weather Bird,” which he and his older brother, Branford, have performed on such tunes as “Cain and Abel” (on Branford’s album The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born).

Playing (around) with and within the Tune

While the analogy between jazz and ethics cannot and should not be stretched to claim a perfect synchronicity, our ethical, pedagogical, and catechetical imaginations can be inspired (even through such a simple example) to think of the underlying “tune” or composition as the “constant” involved in moral formation—perhaps the basic Christian description or interpretation of a beatitude or virtue.

In this case, we can see that the tune of “Winter Wonderland” is being performed in a context quite different from usual. So, we may imagine someone being called on to perform a virtue, such as temperance or charity, in a context quite different from what he imagined and far removed from any of the contexts in which he learned and practiced the virtue. Can he play that tune with these people in this context? Can he perform that virtue, with elegant sincerity and/or humor and/or passionate intensity and/or poignant wistfulness—that is, in whatever key or character or time signature most fitting to create good music in that situation?

Training and formation in listening to, engaging, appreciating, and internalizing the kind of musical preparation-for-performing opens up the possibilities for understanding and experiencing quite differently all the dynamic relationships into which we are thrown. It accustoms us to a different expectation for an encounter between an individual and others and, most important, for what constitutes a good and constructive or harmonious encounter.

Rather than the Romantic model of the modern and postmodern Kantian flowchart model (the detached and sovereign self, primarily concerned with “self-expression” and unchallenged individual will) or the totalitarian model of that same flowchart (the individual denying and suppressing hive mind), jazz offers an experience of the individual-in-community (a community with a tradition) who is able to express individuality precisely because of the community—a community built around encouraging individual expression through faithful play with the language and sensibilities of the community.

Where the modern ideal of ethics proposes a universal recognition of duty and urges a standard of universalism as a norming concept (the categorical imperative and its descendants), it cannot deliver on its promise in the absence of commonly held goods and substantive beliefs about the duties owed among different people in infinitely variable situations. For jazz, as with virtues ethics, a person formed to have a “faithfully improvisational character” should be able to play and to play well—that is, create good, harmonious music—in almost every context, even unexpected situations among people never imagined.

So, ethics should take note of the kind of training that can form that kind of performer. There is much more to be said about the fittingness of jazz as a model for ethics: the poignancy of a music created like a gumbo out of a seemingly cacophonous recipe of social, racial, political, musical, and theological ingredients.[4] But with our imaginations piqued by this brief analysis of the dynamics of one performance, and with attention to the question of how one forms people for such constructive, faithful, individual, and relational performances, we can now turn back to our ethical frame.

Derailing the Trolley

Looking again at the Trolley Problem, we remember that even if we assumed that some version of modern ethics offers the only valid option for a pluralist society, philosophers and sociologists still observe the governing effect of instinct or intuition. So, the issue of training such inclinations is important even for those models. It’s just unacknowledged most of the time.

You and your friends, children, coworkers, church family, fellow citizens, and so on, will be grounded in and guided by something, regardless of your awareness of that something. The current state of mass ignorance about this fact goes a long way toward explaining the pathetic, and perhaps tragic, state of “political discourse”—a label applied to behavior and language that has virtually no substantive relationship to anything that would have been honored with the name “politics” at any prior point in human history.

Slogan-based “public ethics” relies on ignorance of a grounding and guiding logic. The norm is, rather, a muddy-gray slate (rather than a blank slate) in which a branded slogan or a hashtag is waiting to influence a moral agent presented with a decision, especially a dilemma or moment of crisis. The slogan acts as a purely formal stand-in for a “guiding principle” or “fundamental value.” Frequently, #ethics gestures to a complex of assertions that act as a guiding principle, without requiring any awareness of the source or even the articulation of a principle, much less any robust account that could support the truth of the assertions.

In the absence of well-formed characters—characters bolstered by narratives, habits of critical reading and thinking, and a culture of deliberative reasoning—#ethics is insidiously powerful. The pseudo-principles and quasi-virtues, which appear to emerge from nowhere, need not be supported by any tradition (or even existed longer than the latest news cycle), and accept no accountability to any order—in fact, often claiming to oppose every existing order by exploiting the ever-attractive pose of being a “maverick” or speaking truth to power. It’s ethics-as-branding, rather than a restatement or critical engagement with a reasoned position, propagated precisely so it can be consumed, contained, printable, and easily displayed with honor—quite often on an actual bumper sticker.

Order and Harmony

What jazz can teach us is an extension and elaboration of what Jeremy Begbie has been arguing about music in general for more than two decades now: it offers us a different way of experiencing time, relationship, contingency, and the quiet promptings of the Spirit behind all in-spir-ation.[5] The complexity and sophistication of jazz is not abstract, either in the generally used sense of “difficult to understand because detached from anything familiar” or in the sense that it is abstracted from anything physical, experienced, or concrete. Jazz is music that is complex, because of the layers of relationship being performed right in front of us.

Harmony is the sound of rightly ordered relationship; and in music we experience, with our physical and fleshy senses, the sound of dynamic relationships, even though we may later analyze intellectually the logic of the ratios (relationships described in numbers) at the music theory level. In jazz, we can hear and perform a degree of dynamic relating not possible in any other music, because all aspects of this music are available for some level of play. But this play is possible precisely because there is a structure that secures time, space, and freedom (for which we have been freed) for playing with, playing around, and playing together.

As The Good Place demonstrates, a real-life Trolley Problem moves quickly and the moral philosopher is incapacitated, because he has no time to deliberate about consequences, contractual obligations, utility, or universally applicable duties. Because of all the balancing of goods, costs, relationships, possibilities, and so on, the closer one is to full awareness of all the variables involved in modern ethics, the more incapacitated we become. And, as Chidi shows us, the result is an effectively useless moral agent and an extremely annoying person (“That’s why everyone hates moral philosophers”).

Develop and cultivate character that desires the virtues, and ethics becomes a performance of a well-formed person, rather than an intellectual cost-benefit analysis or flowchart of possibilities, principles, and levels of duty. An ethical formation modeled on performance, like jazz training, won’t help you give a perfect answer to the Trolley Problem, to “Sophie’s Choice,” or any other crisis dilemma. But it can help us see a better way of forming people who might defeat the predetermined “no win” premises by performing other options aimed at the Good. And even more important, we will form people who perform virtues in the relationships and situations they encounter in the 99.99 percent of their lives not spent careening wildly on trolleys.

And yet, The Good Place gives something like a virtue ethics response to a Trolley Problem situation in another life-or-death dilemma encountered several episodes later. Presented with a trolley-like dilemma, a central character chooses none of the typical modern ethical models; instead, he chooses to sacrifice himself to save his friends. While nothing in the story depicts him as being trained in virtues that shaped his character to become self-sacrificial (his intuition seems to flow from his experiences of friendship), this plot twist is dramatized by an increasingly virtuous character who “performs his formation” in the moment of improvisational crisis. He doesn’t analyze every possibility in terms of a maximum utility (e.g., “Betray my friends to save my own skin?” “Abandon them and pretend I wasn’t involved?”) or by consulting a chart of laws and duties. Rather, if we look at this in terms of virtues ethics, then he has been formed by his community of friends and practicing forms of love to recognize the possibility of sacrificial action; and in that moment of dilemma, this seems to be the obvious action he should take—simply because he’s the kind of person who sacrifices himself for his friends. He performs his formation.

In jazz terms, he reaches a solo break, and rather than mechanically process all of the possible melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic possibilities, his own formation (physical, mental, and relational training) and the relationships with others performing “on stage” with him at that moment prompt that particular performance of his own voice or character. The “bad musical decisions” don’t even appear as options, because they “don’t seem like him” anymore. To do other than the virtuous thing would be to act “out of character” for the virtuous person.

A formation toward improvisational performance of the virtues offers us an ethical diagnosis, a prognosis, and a prescription fitting for the kinds of creatures we are and for the kinds of characters we are called to become. The virtuous person doesn’t consider stealing a dropped wallet, betraying his friends, or suddenly playing a Mozart-esque melody and rhythm during a Thelonious Monk tune, because his properly formed character—aiming as it does to perform various goods constitutive of the Good of virtuous behavior or “good music”—doesn’t suggest them as good options. He “solves” a dilemma like the Trolley Problem by performing the “no greater love” he has for his friends by laying down his life for them.

Aside from, and possibly despite, any after-the-fact calculus of consequences or overlapping duties, the performer plays a line that’s so perfectly fitting, it isn’t just a moment of beauty shared among friends. The masterful performance of such virtue resonates sympathetically with a greater, always-present Beauty that we hear louder and clearer at such moments—a music that invites us in and wants us to perform more perfect, and thus joyful, versions of ourselves.

David M. Wilmington (PhD, Baylor) is assistant academic dean and humanities teacher at Petra Academy in Bozeman, Montana. In 2019, he delivered The BTS Lectures at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Singapore, and he participated in lectures and panels at Brigham Young University and the SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival; and his essay Order and Improvisation in Bonaventure’s Hierarchy: Virtues as Apophatic Practices (Franciscan Institute Press) was published in honor of the 800th anniversary of St. Bonaventure.

1. See Elizabeth Yuko’s argument for why The Good Place offers the most thorough treatment of the underlying ethical issues in “How The Good Place Goes Beyond ‘The Trolley Problem,’” The Atlantic (October 21, 2017),
2. See the excellent lecture on the Trolley Problem by Tamar Szabó Gendler, the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, Lecture 14: The Trolley Problem, PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature, Open Yale Courses,
3. I use the language of intuition because it is common in the introductory ethics classes where the Trolley Problem is first presented. A better tradition engages with an innate sense of the good—synderesis—and links this to our creation imago Dei, while also giving a better account (via sin) of why that sense is damaged and confused.
4. Readers familiar with the work of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray will detect their strong influence throughout this essay.
5. See Jeremy S. Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), as well as his Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), and Music, Modernity, and God: Essays in Listening (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Saturday, May 1st 2021

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