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The Trolley Problem


The trolley problem is a moral dilemma originally proposed by the virtue ethicist, Philippa Foot. (A trolley, incidentally, is another name for a tram or streetcar). There isn't a right or wrong answer to this dilemma - it really is up to you to determine the moral dimensions in respect of your own ethics (much as in real life!)

The trolley problem goes something like this:

An out-of-control trolley is rushing down its track - and a mad philosopher has tied five people in its path. There is a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track - but there is a single person tied there. Should you flip the switch?

Please think about your answer to this dilemma before reading on.

Judith Jarvis Thomson proposed a variant on this theme:

As before, a trolley is hurtling towards five people. But this time you are on a bridge standing next to a fat man. The only way you can stop the trolley is to push the fat man in the path of the trolley, killing him to save the other five. Should you proceed?

Please share your views on these dilemmas in the comments!

Comments to this post are now closed. Please post any further comments on the follow-up post instead.


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Fist Version: Is the trolley full of people or is it just the conductor? Regardless, I'd probably yell for everyone to jump off and I'd throw the switch half-way (assuming this is an old trolley with manual switches, otherwise I'd just have to time it carefully and hope for the best), which would be sure to send the trolley careening off the tracks, sparing all the poor people from the cruel excesses of rogue philosophers. *kniw*

Version Two: Given that this is a hypothetical question, I could be hypothetically as fat, or fatter, than the fat man and jump down myself, right?

Clearly, my philosophical leanings dictate that when life gives you lemons, you take out the bottle of tequila, agave nectar and salt you thoughtfully brought along and make cocktails...

Do fat people deserve to die according so some ethical imperitive? If modern life has taught me anything, the answer is: yes, kill the fat bastard!

Hello, Chris! I thought this would be a good time to jump in. :)

Assuming that these are the only choices I have (which is, as always seems to be true with these 'dilemmas', entirely unrealistic), that I know nothing about the people, and that I am acting in the heat of the moment, I might flip the switch, but would not push the fat man.

Why? Using the switch is much more impersonal, making the choice seem more quantitative--do I lose five or lose one? Pushing the man is more direct--the question becomes: "Are the lives of the five people more valuable than the life of the fat man?" There's a chance that I would make a decision in the first case, but only if my time was limited.

Either way, the dilemma really boils down to the question about relative value, which I don't have an answer for. (Are five always worth more than one? Is being 'fat' bad, or just convenient for stopping a trolley?) That, along with being very unwilling to kill someone, would probably cause me to do nothing in both situations. I realize that people die no matter what I do, but I think there's a significant difference between letting people die and choosing to kill someone else. It would be different (and perhaps easier?) if I was the one who had caused the trolley to go out-of-control and thus was directly responsible for all of the deaths.

It really shouldn't be my decision at all, though. The fat man (or single person) should decide for himself.

Too bad, you innocent victims. You're going to have to die to provide a lone understandably-tortured hero with the justification he/she needs to hunt and kill (never arrest) every pimp, every security guard, every renegade ex-kgb operative and every mohawked tweaker within 4 degrees of separation from the big philosopher boss.

To flip the switch and not push the man seems analogous to eating beef but being unwilling to slaughter a cow, which seems plain mad to me, though is obviously the case for many people.

I think I'd be happier pushing the man and feeling fully responsible than to flip a switch. Flipping the switch seems too indirect, you could make out it didn't happen, avoid responsibility. I want to be directly responsible for my actions. I think that concept is analogous to the idea that if you're going to kill someone you should do it face to face not shoot them in the back!

The utilitarian decision is "1 death is better than 5", the Kantian one is "I ought not kill", but both those systems take away the responsibility from the individual ie "it's not my fault they died, the system of morals told me how to act!" I think my position is closer to virtue ethics and existentialism, and implies that the freedom of the individual to act and the necessity of personal responsibility is paramount. That doesn't make it better, just bases the decision on different principles.

A bit of a fragmented response I'm afraid.

I'd like to delete "A bit of a fragmented response I'm afraid." but it doesn't seem to be possible.

Don't throw the switch, don't push the fat man. Let the trolley hit the five people in either case - the magnitude of the tragedy will bring the spectre of horrific runaway trolley accidents into the public eye, forcing the trolley operators to implement and enforce stricter safety regulations, preventing untold trolley-related deaths in the future.

I do like the subtle twist in the second version. In the first version, where the one person who could die to save the rest was tied to the track as well, I would definitely go for it and flip the switch. In the second version, the fat man has pretty much nothing to do with the scenario in the first place; you are bringing him into the mess by pushing him off the bridge.

Loving the comments on this one - thanks everyone! I'm going to hold off commenting myself in the hope there are more responses yet to come. I might go through the comments next week in a post...

Thanks again - keep 'em coming! ;)

Good question. I agree with Darius. In the first example you are minimising damage. In the second you are choosing to kill someone who wasn't in danger in the first place.

What about if:

1) You are tied to the track. The cart is headed towards you with five people onboard. You can reach a switch that will divert them off a cliff and leave you alive. If they hit you they will slow down and stop safely.

2) You're still tied to the track but this time there's a fat man on the other side.

IMO they aren't the same as the original examples but a more even choice. I don't know. Maybe i'm just talking crap. :)

As these are hypothetical situations...

I'll flip the switch, providing just enough time for my sidekick (I'm a super hero, hypothetically), to untie the single victim. I'll then be able to jump onto the trolley and battle with the Mad Philosopher. We will then wind up in an abandoned warehouse where a similar and much trickier moral dilemma will await me.

In the second case, I would use my superior oratory skills to convince the Fat Man to sacrifice himself for the good of the victims. He will be hailed as a hero and awarded many honours, posthumously. I will be there as a testament to his will and devotion to life, unable to make the same sacrifice myself due to my diminutive size.

Realistically, faced with a life or death situation, my logical side kicks in. If I knew none of the victims, then the one over the many. However, if the one is someone important to me (say, my wife) then emotion wins and she lives. If there is positive emotional connection on both sides, they get to duel it out (probably into inaction).

If you had the choice of buying a trolley or instead using that money to provide life-saving medicine to poor dying children, should you buy the trolley?

All the nonsense answers having been dealt with, maybe I should just point out the obvious.
There is no way to answer this question, as there is no context. I'd contend that all ethics are relative, situational and personal. Even if you abide by a particular predefined set of ethics like those provided by religions, how do you know where you are in this hypothetical? Perhaps you're in a culture where death by trolley is a great honour, and any attempt to stop it (no matter the likelihood of success) would be considered a capital crime, resulting in your execution.
Its a thought experiment with no defined experimental conclusion is possible.

zenBen: if no conclusion is possible, why are other people able to answer? :) It is surely because in an absence of context, we instantiate our own context. Your point is valid up to a point, but most people automatically instantiate themselves into such situations.

A detailed look at the many replies we've had to this will appear later this week! Thanks to everyone for contributing!

I logically agree with the comments of 'one death is better than more', assuming that the people in question are roughly equal, I know no-one and the culture is as I know it here. (I'm assuming no-one has hoped all their lives to be killed in this way.)

I would value the life of a human based on how much their typical actions coincided with what I consider to be 'good' on my value system.

In practise, I would probably be shocked into inaction in either case.

People are able to answer because they are confabulating context. Exactly. But as a thought experiment, what use is that? Its a pub discussion, not scientific. I know, I know, there's no reason for it to be...I still can't bring myself to answer though - the tangential nonsense I could come up with when inventing context would rival Ross Noble :D

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