A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?
Fat man version:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
Postscript: Hypothetical ethical dilemmas provide great opportunities to stretch one’s brain. But they can also encourage one to veer away from greater questions by emphasizing the apparent plausibility that truth is finally unknowable and that ethical dilemmas are purely rational formulations. Neither of which are true.
But to continue, what if there are five people on one track and your child is the one on the other? How does that change your decision? Or five very old people one the one track and a young person on the other. Does that change it? Or what if you were one of the five, but still the sole person who could the trolley’s direction. This is rather tricky now.
A different scenario puts you in the position to save both the trolley and all the people on the track if you sacrifice your own life in saving theirs. Would you be willing to do that? What if you did not know those people? What if they were, in fact, your enemies? This is a greater question. However, it is still rather hypothetical.
What if the scenario was not life and death, but benefit and loss? What if you could give someone else a better life if you would give up your own happiness? Is this not a “laying down” of one’s life for another’s? What if the scenario was that you had to give up your pride, be humble, and serve another for their benefit and you get nothing of comparable consequence in return? This is less hypothetical. In fact, it can be part of every relationship, increasing in intensity the closer the relationship.
In terms of profit and loss, what the trolley problem does not ask (maybe it’s assumed) is which decision is better for the decision maker, in terms of damage caused. The scenario assumes that the only consequence is one of numbers of human lives, but there is also the fact that it sets the state of one human soul (the decision maker) against the physical deaths of one to five human beings. The real power of this problem is not in which solution could you better defend in a court room, it is in which decision is truly right, is righteous, which makes it a potentially spiritual problem in a conundrum’s clothing. Thus, the utilitarian solution, which most people say they would choose may, in fact, still create a kind of long-term “haunting” in the decision maker’s soul because there are no good options. This is often a problem in war, where soldiers have to face into the personal ramifications of making terribly unfair choices because the situations themselves provide no other real options. Making such a decision is more than a matter of pure ethics or brain chemistry. In fact, it may have a great deal to do with the state and story of one’s soul.
A humorous take on these kind of ethical conundrums (click to enlarge):
6 thoughts on “>the trolley problem”
>I didn’t know this moral conundrum, that’s interesting. Is it a classic case taught in university? The versions are hardly identical, especially if they are abstract moral hypothetical situations.The “equation on paper” is overlooking the role of the subject in each action. Like vlog#2 says, being on the trolley gives you a greater responsibility to solve the case. And in one situation your action is to take the trolley to a different track or not (regardless for the consequences, which are arbitrarily weighted in number of casualties). In the other your action is to push someone to certain death or not (regardless of the potential resulting effect on another situation).These are the immediate moral decisions people are confronted with.But I guess the moral of this puzzle is to emphasize the price one’s gives to an anonymous life.My answer is that killing is more immoral than to fail to prevent a natural disaster. It would be interesting to ask people to switch track when the trolley is going initially to kill the 1 person if they remained inactive (like you suggest). And compare the statistical answers.Because what is immoral is to act and take one’s life. To be present on the site of a tragedy and being unable to do anything that wouldn’t cause some damage is not immoral.To balance one’s action by capitalizing the reward of saving a number of hypothetical lives is absurd. And the fallacy of this situation, like the guys said in the vlogs, is to assume that the causality of our morally superior act could be known in advance for sure. If we had this knowledge of the future life would give us less regrets.So when in doubt, we could always hope the trolley will stop itself, which makes inaction preferable to intentionally risking the life of someone who wasn’t part of the accident scheme.
>This is the “pre-crime” moral dilemma contemplated by in Spielberg’s Minority Report 😉
>we’ve talked about this in our home before and I thank you for getting us to begin the discussion again, it brings out so many deeper thoughts, and for me questions…some of your questions are new ones to throw into the mix…we shall see where the conversation leads.
>Harry, thanks for your thoughts. It seems to me the real value of problems like this are merely show show people how they reason (or don’t reason) through moral questions. There’s value in that. But the problem is also so contrived as to be almost ludicrous. In that sense the answer might be to just bring mad philosopher to justice.
>Meg, I hope you two have a good discussion. And remember, a good bottle of wine always helps when doing philosophy.
>that’s what was missing!