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Reflections on Ethics 124
That Godawful Trolley Problem

by: John Tyrrell

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Trolley Problem

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics. The general form of the problem is this:

You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option?

The Fat Man

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 putting something very heavy 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?



I've always had trouble with the Trolley Problem from the first time I heard it. I want nothing to do with it. I just feel I should walk away -- walk away from the problem in total -- walk away from either situation as presented in both situations.

The problem repels me. I do not see it as a thought experiment, largely because the thought involves resolving a situation in a reality in which we cannot possibly find ourselves; and I don't see it as an ethics problem, rather it is merely a game of playing god.

As presented, the problem involves perfect knowledge - the reader is omniscient with respect to the small world of the problem - knows for certain it is a runaway trolley - knows for certain the current position of the switch - knows for certain that the switch can be operated - knows for certain that there is no intermediate position of the switch that will derail the trolley - knows for certain that the fat man will stop the trolley - knows for certain that the fat man can be pushed off the bridge, giving not a moments resistance - knows for certain that the five men are not escapees from the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane who passed out after mugging the world famous scientist who had in his pocket a solution to global warming, etc.

Also with respect to the small world of the problem, the reader is omnipotent. The reader has the power of life and death, is the ultimate decider.

Simply, in the world of the problem, the reader is god. The only god.

And in pretty well every monotheistic theology, the god can do no wrong. Whatever god does is right. There is no ethical problem to consider. The god does whatever it wants.

I'm not going to say there is not an underlying issue here of whether it is morally right to sacrifice some individuals so as to save others. That is a moral issue which is faced regularly by any number of people. And those decisions are almost never made under certainty - in real life, we cannot be sure of the outcome.

Such decisions are made by those in the military, from generals down to NCOs - choosing to put one group of soldiers in danger so as to increase the safety of another group. Such decisions are made in medicine - where to put scarce resources - should we buy the latest technology for intensive care, or for neonatal - resulting in expected lives saved there instead of here. Highway engineers knowing that if they straighten a tight curve they will save those lives lost on the turn, but encourage greater speeds which will kill others further along the highway.

These trade-offs are part of life. We should be aware of them. But, the trolley problem casts no light whatever on the appropriate ethical decision. Because we do not want those people making decisions to think they are gods operating under certainty. Because they never are under certainty. And recognizing uncertainty, they will be forced to reassess their doubts constantly.


For another critical (and more scholarly) opinion of the Trolley Problem, see The Trolley Problem Will Tell You Nothing Useful About Morality (It turns us into horrible people, and discourages us from examining the structural factors that determine our choices) by Brianna Rennix & Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs, November 3, 2017

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