Trolley Problem: What Would You Do?

 Posted by on 30 August 2013 at 3:35 pm  Academia, Ethics, Philosophy
Aug 302013

On Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll answer a question on whether the “trolley problem” so often discussed by academic philosophers has any value. The basic scenario of the trolley problem is:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills 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 correct choice?

So what would you do? Here’s a super-quick poll, the answers to which I’ll use in Sunday’s discussion:

Then explain your reasons for your choice in the comments!

  • Stuart Hayashi

    For the poll, I chose “Do nothing and let the five people get hit.” That’s a horrible answer, and I think that these sorts of lifeboat-scenario questions are rigged so that the person expected to answer looks horrible either way. (And it’s no accident that the Joker’s antics in “The Dark Knight” are based on these philosophical lifeboat scenarios.)

    If I choose to do nothing, and those five people are killed, my passivity in the face of the emergency is horrible. However, if I pull the lever, then I am very directly taking action to cause someone’s death. That is worse than passively letting Kitty Genovese die — it is taking direct action to snuff someone out. (Here, Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt would say that I’m letting my amygdala control me.)

  • BTomorrow

    In such an experiment I would wonder why I know so much about 1. How the lever system works 2. How the trolley will be unable to stop 3. How the people cannot move

    I have to conclude that I have either lots of time to find these things out or that I had lots of time before the situation came up. In the first case, I would organize help. In the second case, I would have to conclude that I was the criminal that put the people on the tracks. So I would pull the lever to kill the 1 person (I would be guilty of so many things already anyway) and try to risk my life to stop the trolley in an alternative way (because this is the only chance to redeem my life / identity).


  • Heather Schwarz

    I would stay away from the lever, but spend the time trying to derail the trolly. Put rocks on the tracks or something … I have no idea what would work, but something might, and at least I’d be making a positive effort rather than the least-negative one. I mean what else would you do … stand next to the lever and watch as someone is killed?

  • JonathanBailey

    Don’t fall into the false choice trap. Like Heather says, try to derail the trolley any way you can. Perhaps throwing the lever half way would do the trick.

  • Tilia Thompson

    I am going to let myself be sucked into this hole of doom question. Don’t hate me, I have no clue what the best answer is, and my answer is fairly subjective and has lots of holes, which is no good (just like the question!)

    Aside from all of this mess of getting into this Saw-movie style situation, I am assuming I know how to work the lever and such other knowledge that would make this decision rely on me being the active party: I would throw it, based on the fact that I’d rather deal with the personal guilt of killing one person rather than the personal guilt of killing five. In this situation, I have the knowledge and ability to act. If I choose not to act, I create a net loss of four people (5-1=4), and while I could say “Oh no! five people died, but it is not my fault, I was paralyzed by fear and shock and it is not my fault that they died!,” I’ve dealt with human loss on a very personal level, and one loss has got to be easier to deal with than an immediate five. But, if the one person was someone I loved and valued, those other suckers tied up would be on the way to being ground-human-burger, and my level of guilt would be much lower. And if I knew all of them, I am glad I only have one child so far that I could put into this horrible hypothetical question. Also, note that guilt is an all encompassing word- it could include shame as well, but is meant to describe the whole human emotion of wanting to have done something differently that we subject ourselves to in these situations. I am moved to think this sort of situation occurs in some form when we deal with people trying to conceive- often you have to choose to abort some of the fetuses in order for the others, and you to live. These fetuses, I think, would have a very similar emotional weight in a person’s mind as a bunch of strangers tied to the rails. Probably more, since they are wanted, the parents have spent a great deal of time envisioning who they will be once born, products and items for their existence have already been invested in, and they are made out of your own super-awesome DNA, rather than some other human genetic code far removed from you.

  • Monica Pignotti

    Let’s say there were five people needing organ donations in order to live and without the transplant they would die and one healthy person who could save their lives by being sacrificed and having his organs donated to them and this was the only person who could save those five people. Does anyone here think it is okay to kill that healthy person and use their organs to save the lives of the five others? Pulling the lever to kill the one person on the tracks amounts to the same thing, actively causing the death of an individual, committing murder to sacrifice an individual for the sake of saving the lives of a group of people. Doing nothing, as horrible as that would be, would not be directly causing their deaths, which would be due to an unfortunate accident and no more my responsibility than the deaths of people needing organ donations if I didn’t kill the healthy person. Because I do value all life, I would do everything I could to derail the trolley but I would not murder the individual.That individual has a right to live as much as the five others do and taking that right away for the sake of the collective five, would be wrong. Although this would be a horrible dilemma to be in, I didn’t think the answer was all that difficult.

  • Tilia Thompson

    Oh, questions like this drive me mad! I thought of another similar scenario, based on the idea of you being the only capable active party with the knowledge and ability: There is a house on fire. Four people are trapped in one room on the first floor, and one person is trapped in a separate room on the first floor. The rooms are equidistant from you. There are no windows. As a trained firefighter, it is your job to save lives. All the other firefighters are busy. Do you save the one person or the four?

    There is a reason my crazy brother is a firefighter and I am a fashion designer… questions like this are real to some people. Often, they are people who put themselves in these situations. You cannot just shrug off this ‘trolley’ version situation because it leaves you with only two hard choices, as I am assuming that a third choice, such as the escapist version, “I’d derail it!” doesn’t answer the question that first responders like police, EMTS, and Firefighters, or soldiers and other professions dealing with unjust choices have to deal with, everyday. These people see the aftermath of this decision daily- and calling this situation easy might be true on some level- but only because those that enter similar scenarios are trained for it, and trained for the bodies.

    • Justin Roff-Marsh

      I agree, Tilia.

      This kind of choice does occur in reality, so it doesn’t appear that there’s much mileage in trying to sidestep the intent of the question.

      It would appear obvious that, absent any additional information, a thinking person would endeavor to choose the least-worst outcome.

      A better approach, I think, is to argue that that such situations are extraordinarily rare and that, accordingly, the findings of the thought experiment cannot be generalized and used to provide guidance in everyday situations.


      • Tilia Thompson

        I like how you put it, Justin! Much more pleasantly and with less distress than I did! I’ll be super interested to see what Diana has to say Sunday!

  • Tjitze de Boer

    Do I know any of those people? I think the situation could be clarified by it. Say your lover is on the single track or somesuch.

  • John Pryce

    Like some of the other commentators, I always ask questions about how I could possibly know such things in such situations; such things as “how do I know the lever works? How do I know what it will do? How do I know the trolley won’t stop?”

    So I throw the lever and then try to derail the trolley. In the picture, the single person is closer to me, meaning I have a better chance of getting ahead of the trolley to derail it, and the throwing of the level means that the fallout from failing to derail it is lower.

  • Janet

    I would look for a different action – somehow signal to the trolley driver to stop. Get others involved in helping get the people off the tracks. Look for more options, even though time is short. De-railing the trolley isn’t a good solution, as the lives of any onboard would be at risk.

  • Kevin Perez

    I would follow James Tiberius Kirk’s lead – when he hacked the problem (the Kobayashi Maru test) to avoid it – and find an alternate solution.

  • Tom G Varik

    Because we’re apparently allowed to use ridiculous thought experiments un constrained by reality, I’d build a giant catbox around the entire system and put it into a superposition of both switched and not switched, so everybody gets to live and get killed, at least until someone else comes along to collapse the wave function.

  • jim stevens

    Battlefield medical personnel face this type of problem while doing triage. For instance in a large group of casualties it might be possible to save one person with extensive surgery, but would result in several others dying due to lack of medical care or supplies. To make it more similar to the trolley conundrum, assume a severely injured patient is placed on the surgical table and the doctor realizes it will take extensive surgery and that five other patients waiting for care will die during the wait. Going on a first come-first serve basis for treating patients seems to put the surgeon in the same position as the would be trolley switcher. I would not fault the doctor for allowing the first patient to die while aiding other patients.

    At the time of my response the poll seems to show that 25% would go ahead and treat the first patient. I wonder if the poll had been worded as a triage problem if the results would change much.

  • juam cabrera

    If you weren’t by the lever the five people would of died either way. Is the difference in the number of lives the deciding factor as to pull the lever? What if the five were serial murderers? By pulling the lever I would feel more guilt than by not.

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