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  • Writer's pictureThe AVM Theory

The Trolley Problem

It is a nice sunny day, you are driving your trolley as you would on any other day. You are about to reach the point where the track diverges into 2. Suddenly, something malfunctions and the trolley has lost control and is hurtling ahead. As you get closer and closer you notice there are 5 construction workers on the left track, and 1 worker on the right one. All are unaware of the trolley raging towards them. The breaks do not work. Your trolley’s steering operates on a lever, currently you are moving towards the left however if you pull the lever you will turn to the right.

Do you pull the lever?

That is the question Philipa Foot asked in 1967 when she first proposed the Trolley Experiment. Nonetheless, even today, in true Philosophical fashion, people continue to discuss it all over the world- for good reason.

The common answer to the problem is to pull the lever with the argument stating that in doing so you are saving 5 lives at the cost of 1, the lives of many outweigh the life of 1. This idea, that “actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority” is called Utilitarianism. Such philosophy is frequently compounded with Consequentialism, the belief that the morality of an action should be solely judged by its consequences. Conversely, in pulling the lever, you would be directly engaging in killing someone. If you do not do anything and let the trolley run its course, some believe, you are not directly causing death which is better than the alternative.

A variation of the thought experiment was introduced by Judith Thomson. You are not the one driving the trolley, but its driver has fainted inside the trolley and it is moving left. You are standing on a footbridge above the trolley’s path. Beside you is a man of a large enough stature that if you pushed him off the bridge onto the path of the trolley, he would stop the trolley from killing the 5 construction workers but it would kill him.

Here, most people say that they would not push the man. This is interesting because in the most skeletal sense, the variation proposes the exact same scenario. 5 lives for the cost of 1 was the answer before, why not now? It is because of the Principle of Double Effect which permits indirectly causing harm for the greater good and forbids direct harm even if the ends seem to justify the means. In the original, the choice to move left is popularly considered as a choice to save 5 people which has a side or double effect of killing 1 person. Whereas, in this variation, the choice is to consciously kill 1 person which then saves 5.

What if this larger man was evil? He had intentionally stationed the constructors on the 2 paths and then dismantled the trolley causing it to malfunction in some sort of sick-minded frenzy of death and dilemma. Would you push him off then? If you say yes, then how can that be? Is it ethical to kill a person just because they themselves are ethically questioned?

Deontologism would argue that the experiment is entirely immoral and that it is never acceptable to kill anyone. On similar lines, Egalitarians will argue that if we truly believe in equality then killing 1 to save 5 is wrong as we are sacrificing the right to live of that 1 person.

Neurologists inspected the physiological response one has to the aforementioned scenarios. It was observed that the original activates the logical and rational mind connecting 5 > 1. On the other hand, the variations activate our emotional side as we consider how it would feel to actively kill someone.

Another variation of the original is based more in questioning how much one actually believes in Utilitarianism. On the left track the 5 constructors remain, but what if on the right track is a close relative of yours, like your mother. Do you still pull the lever, would you want to? Will you be able to?

As with any ethical dilemma, the Trolley Problem has great implications in real life. For example, imagine you are a surgeon. You have 5 patients all in need of organ transplants. In addition, you have a perfectly healthy patient on your operation table for routine surgery. This one patient has all the organs that the other 5 patients need. Do you harvest the organs of 1 person in order to save the 5 in need? In other words, do you kill or do you let die. Here, strict Utilitarianism would suggest killing the 1, but no matter how hard we try, for most people, morals cannot be decided by a fixed set of rules and our intuition tends to keep shifting. On the other hand, Deontologists would argue that you should let the 5 die. They were going to die anyway, to save them you are killing a perfectly healthy person. The Hippocratic Oath that all doctors take states to “do no harm.” What does that mean in such a situation?

Other real life implications include how the Trolley and the Villain scenario is directly connected to Law and how it must punish its convicts. Similarly, in war, such questions of sacrifice and majority benefit are asked.

In recent years, pop culture has been finding the problem to be quite amusing. With an innumerable number of memes and comical representations of the same, even professional philosophers have begun to criticise the experiment. The experiment has been considered to be too abstract and not express how one might behave if actually in such a situation. Furthermore, it is believed to be too large-scale and exaggerated, too unreasonably grotesque or even too silly to truly give an insight on human behaviour and thought.

All this begs the question: What do you think? Would you kill or let die? What affects your morals and why? Philosophy, in all its brilliance, is a wonderful way to understand society; nevertheless, in its strong connection to Psychology, it also helps us understand ourselves.


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