The Trolley Problem

I’ve been thinking more about the railway track ethical dilemma presented in the RadioLab podcast on morality. Although I was familiar with the exercise, further research (Wikipedia) reveals this to be the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment in ethics first proposed by Philippa Foot in 1967.

The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem

In brief (and my own words), the problem can be posed like this:

Suppose you are standing beside a rail line that is under repairs. On one track there are five men working, and as you look the other way you can see an unmanned trolley on the line, heading straight for the men. If you do nothing, five men will be killed. But there is a lever which would redirect the trolley to a side track. On this track, there is one man working. Do you pull the lever, killing one man but saving five? Or do you do nothing?

And with a further twist…

Suppose now the situation is the same, but you are standing above on a railway bridge. On the track there are five men working, and as you look the other way you can see an unmanned trolley on the line, heading straight for the men. If you are able to push something heavy onto the trolley you will be able to stop it. Next to you on the bridge is a fat man. Do you push the fat man onto the trolley, killing him, but saving five? Or do you do nothing?

A quick poll in my house resulted in the following:

  • Two of us would pull the lever (you save five lives!) but one would do nothing (rather not act than kill someone)
  • One of us would push the fat man (you save five lives!) but two of us would do nothing (how could I kill someone?)

Interesting to note that pushing the fat man required some justification. And also interesting to note our different responses and compare how they reflected the way we are in the world.

[Day 20: Reflection]

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3 thoughts on “The Trolley Problem

  1. I’ve thought about this before, for me the difficulty lies in guarantees – do I know I’ll save the 5 if I push the fat man on to the tracks? That doubt is a big part of what stops me.

    • The moral “now” says save the fat man. The moral “in a minute” says save the five. Is there some relationship to economic theory about preferencing the known present rather than the future (brain blank – what’s that bias called again?)

      • Yes – discounting. We discount future rewards (or costs) against present rewards or costs at a far higher rate than inflation or logic would suggest.

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