The Trolly Problem

Let’s imagine that a madman has tied five innocent people to a trolley track, and they are unable to move. A trolley car that is out of control is hurtling towards them, and is only a few seconds away from running them over. Luckily, we can pull a lever that will divert the trolley to another track. The only problem with doing this is that the madman has tied a single person to this other track too. Considering these circumstances, should we pull the lever? This is the Trolley Problem, created by philosopher Philippa Foot, which is one of the most famous thought experiments in the field of ethics. The question is, should we:

1. Simply stand there and allow the trolley to kill these five people tied on the main track?

2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person? Should we kill one person to save five?

What is the right thing to do?

From a utilitarian point of view, the obvious decision is for us to pull the lever, saving the five people and only killing one. But there is another view that would state that in pulling the lever we become complicit in what is clearly an immoral act, as we will still be responsible for the death of that one person. Other people argue that just our mere presence in the situation is a reason good enough for us to act, and that to do absolutely nothing about the situation would be equally immoral.

I think there is no wholly moral action at this point. What if the one person happens to be your family member? Many philosophers have used the trolley problem as an example of the ways that real world situations often force individuals to compromise their own moral codes, and that there are times when there is no totally moral course of action. What do you think?

– SaaniaSparkle 🧚🏻‍♀️

253 thoughts on “The Trolly Problem

  1. True. Most times our morals have to be compromised. Like in a two bad situation, we pick the one that seems less worse than the other. We can’t always have a win win so in bad situations, we trust our conscience and intuition to help us pick the better option.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’ve read several of your posts and enjoyed them. Your intro says you’re 15. I’m 81. You have been very gracious in reading so many of the ramblings of this old guy and indicated that you have liked them. Keep on producing.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. Take responsibility for doing the greatest good for the greatest number. Standing idly by is no responsibility. Assessing the situation and then deciding to let one die and save the others would be taking responsibility for the greatest number of lives. I don’t know how I’d feel if I were in that situation. Everyone is different in their response and responsibility level. Those two words are connected in meaning.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Oooh this is such a good one! Before, I would’ve said I would pull the lever, but now that I have a child my answer is different… If that one person is my husband or my baby, I’d kill a million to save them! *hides face*

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Here’s what i think:
    1. whether its 5 people or just one person, either way, YOU wouldn’t be able to physically be there in time to move or rescue any of them.
    2. Therefore, someone will die, either way.
    3. You can’t prevent the death, but you can minimize it. By pulling the lever.
    4. If you pull the lever, it may be said that you murdered one person. Through action you took.
    5. However, to be ABLE to pull the lever and minimize damage, yet to not do it…i.e..through Inaction, when you could have prevented it, it could be said you allowed Five people to be killed when you could have stopped it. This seems worse.
    It is awful either way, but i feel this comes down to the lesser of 2 evils. Which would you rather live with: A) I caused one person to die, or B) I let five people die when i could have saved them. ? Neither way is pleasant.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Pt. 2—-and yet, perhaps ironically, I can see that there may be people who would simply do nothing and let it happen. It may be said they let five people die, but emotionally, there may find it easier to feel less guilt, as they “weren’t involved” (by taking direct action). But is it Moral? To put it another, it is a conflict between: Do you do your Duty, and feel directly responsible for a persons death, or remain “uninvolved” and rationalize that you didnt cause it? But you could have prevented it. Which is harder to live with? But we can even

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ack! keyboard trouble)…can even question *that*. Should our own feelings be the standard we judge by? or is this really just plainly and simply a “number’s game” where less death is preferable to more people dying and its that simple?

        Philosophy is an interesting topic. A good book to start with is: “Philosophy Made Simple” by Popkin & Stoll. or Barnes & Noble should have it, or be able to get it.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. In theology we have the idea of ‘discernment.’ This means trying to understand and enact the will of God. Assuming the one discerning is not mad, he or she hopefully would choose in accord with God’s will. That arguably solves the moral problem (to some degree) and elevates the issue above mere convention, PC, or worldly thinking.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Saw the Trolly Problem in one of “The Good Place’s” episodes. A moral dilemma, for sure, but I would say that I would personally choose to kill one person in order to save five. True, killing one will negatively-impact that individual’s circle of friends and family (and I would have blood on my hands for the rest of my life), but in comparison to affecting more people by killing five, I would choose to affect less for the sake of it all.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Somehow, I tend to apply Amartya Sen’s idea of Justice in every such situation.
    I mean that where we can’t be perfectly moral or bound to be immoral, we may still be moral by not doing what is more immoral. Let me pull the trolley to be precise.
    Section 81 of IPC is somehow has the same underlying principle.

    This is amazing, had no idea about this problem.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I recommend you this video. it’s a recreation in practical terms of the trolley problem 🚎 …. I guess most people won’t pull the lever. But not so much as an ethical response… instead, It’s probably the ideas of statu quo and authority which count the most. 🤔

    Liked by 3 people

  10. T
    I’d offer up the one to save the many! (Didn’t Spock say that to Cpt. Kirk while on the ship of the Enterprise when he was about to die?)

    There is a story told by Tibetan Buddhist monks about the Buddha when he was being carried along with a hundred other people on a barge. He was able to read the ferryman’s mind and learned he was going to kill them. The Buddha took his life thereby saving the lives of all of the others. The rationale was that he created much more good karma than bad karma.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. We engage in life and death decisions when we shop for merchandise manufactured in various countries. If we are aware, we try to go with the lesser of two evils. The same goes for voting for our national leaders.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Well, being a philosophy student, I am intrigued to comment on this post.
    Like you rightly said, the utilitarian would rather save the 5 persons at the expense of 1 because that satisfied the rule. And perhaps, his moral action will produce greater happiness for a greater number of people.
    However, saving 5 and killing 1 is still a moral problem but it’s quite imperative to lose one person than five. I think every rational person would pull the lever. Nevertheless, one point of view is not enough to justify the Trolley problem

    Liked by 3 people

  13. It gets especially interesting when the scenario is changed. Nearly everyone will do nothing if the trolley switch is already set such that one person is run down rather than five. Most people will throw the switch to kill one rather than five.

    But people start backing off when they have to push a person onto the tracks. Or what if the one person is some they know, but the five are strangers? There are all kinds of combinations that refine people’s judgements of what they would do.

    I’ve always preferred the option of yelling: “Hey! Get off the tracks, you dummies!!”

    Liked by 3 people

  14. I think the trolley problem is mostly interesting for what it says about consequentialism in particular and what we might be looking for in moral codes more generally.

    It only works as a thought experiment through tortured reductionism – by arbitrarily limiting consideration of the infinitely propagating consequences of an act of choice to those within our epistemological horizons. So we’re not expected to consider whether one of the five ‘innocent’ people is actually the serial killer who drove the ‘madman’ mad and who would otherwise go on to kill many more. Or if the one innocent person is the potential parent of someone who invents a cure for cancer. Or if a loose bolt on the track towards the five people means the trolley will derail and no-one will be hurt as long as you don’t touch the switch … Real life consequences are infinitely more complex and unbounded than anything you can put in a thought experiment.

    So moral consequentialism is limited by the knowledge of the actor of the consequences of her act. Cause and effect means that act will continue to have outcomes forever (at least until entropy smears them away). And given enough time consequences will ‘revert to the mean’; i.e. they’ll tend to have ultimately net neutral effects as measured against any given moral gauge. Whether you know none of the consequences of your actlons or all of them for eternity, the sum effect is essentially nil. What you perceive as the consequential value of your act is just your own limitations of conceiving of it.

    But the trolley problem gets even more interesting in its variations.

    Like the one where there’s just one rail line and no switch. You’re standing on an overhead bridge and simply throwing yourself off in front of the trolley won’t stop it. However, in your utilitarian omniscience, you know the person standing next to you is fat enough to derail the trolley and if you push them off it will save the five ‘innocents’.

    Most people who say they’d throw a switch to sacrifice one person to save five say they’d refuse to throw a person off the bridge to get the same outcome. Even more say they’d refuse if there’s twenty ‘innocents’ on the rail line and the ‘fat person’ is a pregnant woman. Utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer say that shows how illogical and immoral ‘moral sentiment’ is in most people. I think they’re wrong and the trolley problems supports Hume’s claim that we really make our moral decisions on ‘feelings’ because rationality and rule books aren’t up to the job in the real world in real time. I sorta riff on that in this post.

    So if moral codes are just rationalisations we either torture into supporting our moral sentiments or use to torture ourselves because they don’t, why do we have them?

    Well, Nietzsche had some interesting things to say about it, but it seems to me our moral codes – whether deontological or consequentialist – are what we use to make ourselves less responsible for our actions and how we feel about them. We try to objectify the essentially subjective experience of our own moral sentiment by pretending it’s something ‘out there’, separate to us. An equation of right and wrong. A battle between good and evil. Something other than us that we can be judged against. That we can use to judge others.

    I guess I’m with Kant (and Adi Sankara) that expression of our morality is what we are. The degree to which we aren’t acting in accordance with our morality is the degree to which we are not free to be ourselves. By pretending our morality is something outside of ourselves that can be objectively quantified and subscribed to we are missing the point and absolving ourselves of any true moral responsibility we might actually have,

    Maybe that’s why calls to utilitarianism are so often used to justify what we know are appalling acts. You need a robust and reliable moral code to do something truly immoral.

    Liked by 1 person

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