My Problem with the Trolley Problem

Andrew Kerr
Jul 21, 2017 · 7 min read

Why do 90% of people believe pulling the lever is the most ethical choice?

For context, the trolley problem is a famous ethical dilemma.

Here’s a summary of the original thought experiment from Wikipedia:

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. However, 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 most ethical choice?

This modern form of the problem was introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967. There have been many variations on it both before and after this. The one I will also introduce, and subsequently build upon, is the alternative case developed by Judith Thompson. It is often referred to as “the fat man.” Here’s its Wikipedia summary:

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?

Disclaimer: I am avoiding discussing other takes on the trolley problem in order to feel more righteous in arguing my point. Specifically, versions of the story which include the concepts of good and evil (e.g. the evil fat man that tied the good people to the track). I encourage you to look these up. For now though, I’m taking the path of least resistance.

Continuing on.

Although these two dilemmas appear to have different moral implications, they can essentially be reduced to a single question: would you make the active, conscious choice to kill one person in order to save the lives of many? Virtually every new version of this dilemma simply builds upon this original question, adding more complexities.

As stated above, the vast majority of people choose to pull the lever in the first scenario. It may make the most rational sense, but in what ways? I’ve always been skeptical when people believe this is the obvious choice.

If you pride yourself on being a utilitarian, the choice seems clear: pull the lever and push the fat man — sacrifice a single life for five others. Ethically, how could you not? But why does this answer seem so obvious to so many?

Ethical dilemmas are not meant to be proven right or wrong. A true thought experiment has no correct answer. Rather, they allow us to critically examine why we think the way we do — about the thought processes that lead us to arrive at one conclusion over another. When we gain a greater understanding of ourselves, we gain a greater understanding of the universe.

The purpose of this article is not to summarize the numerous philosophical debates regarding the more ethical choice — I would suggest Googling it or going to Wikipedia and jumping off from them there if you are at all curious.

The purpose of this article is twofold: 1. To question the assumptions we hold when arriving at certain conclusions and; 2. To present a new way of approaching this thought experiment.

In my experience, the majority of theories debating the most ethical choice are inspired by some form of utilitarianism. Honestly, I’ve always found utilitarianism to be boring and frustrating. It reduces thought experiments and ethical dilemmas down to math. It removes the important human component which makes thought experiments so fun. I liken utilitarians to economists. The latter trades in terms of finances, while the former in terms of “utility” (often understood as happiness). I stop enjoying thought experiments when they’re reduced to simple calculations. Can you be certain that utility is finite? Or is this just one massive assumption?

So, with that in mind, you might understand why I take issue with the popular ways of approaching this dilemma. After thinking long and hard about why the trolley problem has always annoyed me, I thought of a new way to approach it — a twist on the fat man scenario.

It goes like this: imagine you are the fat man.

Imagine that there is no other person on the bridge. It is just you. You look down and see this runaway trolley hurdling towards five (presumably) innocent people. You recognize that, yes, you are a very, very large person. So large, in fact, that you realize throwing yourself in front of the trolley would stop it. You also realize this would definitely kill you.

So what do you do? Would you commit suicide in order to save five lives? Or would you simply watch everything unfold; potentially living the rest of your life regretting your decision?

When I consider this scenario, the choice is obvious: I would do nothing.

Why would I? I am not the one that tied those people to the track, or that made the trolley’s brakes fail. I am simply a bystander who was unfortunate enough to witness a massacre. Wrong place, wrong time.

I’d like you to ask yourself: would anything lead you to trade your single life for five others’?

What if it was your entire extended family on those tracks? What if it was the person you love more than anything in the world? Someone you’ve looked in the eyes and said, with conviction, that you would die for them. What would you do then?

If you chose to push the fat man in the previous scenario, but would choose not to jump if you were the fat man in this alternative scenario, why is that? How can you choose to take someone else’s life to save others but not your own?

If I lack the conviction to kill myself to save these lives, then how can it be morally justifiable to push someone else to their death? For that matter, how is the choice to pull the lever that simple? If I was the individual on the second track, would I want the lever to be pulled?

Let’s take it one step further — what if, in addition to you being the fat man on the bridge, there was also another man just as large? He’s leaning over, and could easily be pushed. So now you have three options — kill yourself, kill another, or do nothing. If the answer seems less obvious than in the other scenarios, why do you think this is?

Look, don’t get me wrong, it is valuable to examine ethical dilemmas with a utilitarian lens. However, I would challenge anyone who believes that the most ethical choices can always be arrived at through this lens alone.

Utilitarian ethical dilemmas rarely place the author in harm’s way. I think this is a big limit to their philosophy. Economists remove humanity from calculations. Utilitarians? The self. By never placing yourself in the shoes of the fat man, you ignore a critical component of morality.

Let’s switch tracks and wrap this up.

I’m sure we’ve all heard of some variation of the golden rule before. It’s usually attributed to Christianity, but many religions have some take on it:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Being raised in a catholic household, I was very familiar with this principle. It also annoyed me — it lacked something. I found it frustrating. Predictably, as a child questioning god, my attempts to challenge its validity were ignored.

If we consider this principle to be the most virtuous approach to life, does it make it a bit easier to navigate the ethics of the trolley problem? Is this even the most virtuous way to live life?

I’d like you to consider a variation on the golden rule. A principle known as the platinum rule:

“Do unto others as they would like to be treated.”

Would the separate application of these two principles to the trolley experiments impact what we consider to be the most ethical choice?

I feel righteous in my decision to pull the lever when I’m in control. It becomes less clear when I place myself on those tracks or, to a greater extent, in the shoes of the fat man.

Again, there is no correct answer. It does not matter what you choose. What matters is understanding how we arrive at our decisions. Understanding these long-held assumptions that we believe to be true.

I think the most ethical decision is to pull the lever. However, this is dependent on the intentions of the person choosing to pull it. For if you would easily pull the lever when it is someone else on the tracks, but would not want this choice to be made if you were the one in harm’s way, can you honestly say that your decision is the most ethical?

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