The Trolley Problem


In 1967 Philippa Foot presented us with the Trolley Problem. It is no small statement to say that it has vexed moral philosophy and ethics since its inception. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, one formulation goes something like this….

Imagine you were out for an afternoon stroll and came upon a bridge that overlooked a train track. The track splits in two and upon one of the tracks five men are playing a game of cards and eating lunch. On the other track is a solitary man who appears to be sleeping. As you look down upon this peaceful scene your heart starts to race. A runaway trolley suddenly rounds a far corner of the tracks. It’s painfully obvious that is going to hit the five men playing cards, a fact that they are unfortunately oblivious to. They are too far away for you to call out to them. In your panic you look around for some way to alert the men when you see the track switch only a couple of feet away. It occurs to you that if you were to throw the switch you would successfully divert the trolley’s path onto the other track, the one upon which lays the sleeping man. He won’t know what hit him and you will have saved the lives of five men. So… do you throw the switch?

When presented with the trolley problem a true Utilitarian would opt to throw the switch. For the Utilitarian the good of the many comes first. The only valid option here is to save as many lives as possible. Many of us, when first presented with the problem, would opt for the same whether we adhere to a utilitarian state of mind or not. Throwing the switch, while not an easy thing to do, is the logical thing to do. We do not intend for the sleeping man to suffer for our choice although there is no question that his demise is part of the solution.

Hold on though, we are not done. Let’s say that you are out for your stroll again and come across a similar scene. You are on your bridge and there are the five men sitting on the track with a runaway trolley bearing down on them. This time, however, there is no split and no switch to throw. There’s only five men and certain death. It appears to be a hopeless situation. Another man appears next to you, equally frantic. You notice that this man is large and that if he were to suddenly suffer an accident and fall onto the track below it might stop the trolley’s progress. Helping this accident along would appear to be the only way to save the five men. You can’t throw yourself off the train for you are not large enough to stop it. You must decide, and rather quickly, whether or not to push the man off of the bridge.

It’s not so easy this time is it? Regardless of your intellectual moral reasoning it would seem to bump up against some sort of innate moral values that implore you not to push the man onto the tracks. It’s a repulsive thought that wasn’t there when all that was required was to switch the tracks. In this case you do not have a switch sitting between you and the act of ending a man’s life. In this instance you will be directly responsible, at least physically, for the man’s death. Whereas your previous action was to throw a switch the sleeping man’s death was an unfortunate byproduct of that action. Here your action, and your intent, is to cause the man’s death in order to achieve the same end. Again, the cold analytics of Utilitarianism would seem to point you in the direction of gathering your strength and pushing the man off into space.

What I am going to do in short, especially for the Utilitarian, is to solve this dilemma. Before doing so let me first make a few adjustments to the scenario as presented. Forget the trolley, the bridge, and the fat man for now. This time you are not out for an afternoon stroll but are instead the Director of a large medical facility. You have been made aware of a situation involving five patients, all suffering unique forms of organ failure. There are no donors available. You are suddenly made aware that a healthy patient was treated that morning for a sprained ankle. The ankle has been bandaged and the patient will be released momentarily. It occurs to you that if you were to harvest this patient’s organs you could save the lives of the five. Much like the unfortunate fat man on the bridge, this young man’s death would essentially save the lives of the five terminal patients.

For some reason this is a little harder to stomach isn’t it? The two scenarios, that of the fat man and the healthy patient, aren’t that different. You could argue that the healthy patient scenario feels worse because there seems to be a cold calculation at play on the part of the medical director which wasn’t there when the decision was whether or not to push the fat man. That argument holds some validity but, in spite of that, the two cases are the same in that your intent is to cause the death of one man to save five and all I have done is to substitute the trolley with imminent organ failure.

The solution to this horrid little scenario is this: You do what you can, all that is medically possible, to save the five patients in the hospital. This is what your gut is telling you to do anyway isn’t it? The same goes for the unfortunate fat man on the bridge. You can enlist him to help you holler to the five doomed men, but pushing him to him to his death should be avoided at all costs.

Why you ask? Let me counter this with another question. Could you live in a society in which your life, at any moment, could be sacrificed to save the lives of a two people, one hundred, or even one thousand? Of course not. Working on a social structure comprised of organisms that have survived for millions of generations, nature has selected for the values and social norms that we currently enjoy.

Morality has evolved with us as has our altruistic tendencies (although some may argue that true altruism does not exist since and that all of our actions have selfish motivations driving them). A society which would allow, or even condone, the sacrificing of one life for many as part of its culture would not survive for long. It would appear, at face value, to promote the good of the many over the one, as Utilitarianism would suggest, but it is a naive view and one without a true understanding of the consequences. The immediate benefits to the five are evident, but the long-term negative effects of pushing the fat man, or harvesting the organs of a healthy patient, are many. Our sense of personal liberty, of which many of us hold near and dear to our hearts, would rally against a society that cast those liberties aside. It is one thing to remove or quarantine a cancerous cell, as we do an incarcerated criminal, but it is another thing to eradicate or quarantine a healthy cell so that the cells around it might enjoy more resources. The analogies are endless but I think you get the point.

Utilitarianism aside, we all feel the horror that accompanies the thought of pushing a man or a woman to his or her death. It is not a virtuous act nor one that plays particularly well with the morality that has evolved with us. It does nothing to serve the greater good. It would create a malignancy that would sit dormant before metastasizing with a vengeance to destroy its host.


Other “Trolley Problem” Items of Interest:

Edited on 8/12/2014

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Rick Coste is a writer, producer & podumentarian. He currently writes and produces the weekly 'Evolution Talk' podcast.

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