The Existentialist Trolley Problem

How might an existentialist approach this notorious thought experiment of ethical philosophy?

“Not only do we assert that the existentialist doctrine permits the elaboration of an ethics, but it even appears to us as the only philosophy in which an ethics has its place.”―Simone de Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity
“I started to know how it feels when the universe reels.”―The Trolley Song (Meet Me in St. Louis)
illustration by John Holbo

How ought we to live? Every decision we make implies that we have some idea of the answer to that question, but it’s very rare to find someone who can articulate their answer confidently.

Most of us are just winging it, maybe hoping that it will all make sense eventually. We often act as though we suspect the answer is out there somewhere, and we were just unlucky enough to be home sick on the day it was covered in class. We buy self-help books or listen to TED Talks or follow gurus who promise us that if we align ourselves with some lodestone or other — follow your dream, devote your life to others, discover your passion, surrender to God’s plan, go with the flow, practice the law of attraction, don’t take yourself so seriously, find your true life partner — we’ll finally get what it’s all about.

Some of us become fanatics of ideas like these, at least for a while. But most of us patch together a little of this and a little of that and try to muddle through with a philosophy that’s something of a crazy quilt.

Introducing the Trolley Problem

The “Trolley Problem” is a choose-your-own-adventure story in miniature. It stretches the seams of these make-do ethical philosophies we’ve stitched together over our lives, and it has a way of making people a little embarrassed at how threadbare their ethics seem to be.

In the story, a runaway trolley is about to run over and kill several people who are on the tracks in its path and unable to get out of the way. You have an opportunity to stop or divert the trolley, saving those lives, but only at the cost of killing some other innocent victim. What do you do?

illustration by John Holbo

In one version of the Trolley Problem, you can divert the trolley onto another track by pulling a switch, but there’s someone on the second track who will be killed if you do. In a second version, you and some unfortunate fellow are on a bridge overlooking the track, and the fellow is just fat enough that if you were to shove him off the bridge and onto the rails below, his body would stop the trolley before it hits the people further down the track… but at the cost of killing the chubby fellow.

In either case you are asked whether you will sacrifice one life to save many, and so from one perspective the two story variants seem to be essentially identical, only differing in inessential details. But most people who are presented with the Trolley Problem would pull the switch but wouldn’t push the man off the bridge. Why might this be? The Trolley Problem seems at first glance to expose an inconsistency, or at least an absence of simple systematization, in the way many of us make ethical judgments.

People often seem to hold an unstable emulsion of two ethical systems in particular: consequentialist (will my act make things better?) and deontological (is my act good in itself?). But it’s not always clear which of these approaches to use in which situation, or why. The Trolley Problem pulls us into a scenario in which these approaches conflict, and asks us to pick one and to consider how we’re doing the picking. It is better for one to die than for several to die (consequentialist) , yet people die in accidents all the time but it is positively bad for me to shove someone off a bridge (deontological). Which will it be?

Which system is right? Shouldn’t we at least be consistent? Ought we to choose one or the other of these approaches and then stick to it even when we get squeamish?

Existentialism to the Rescue, Sort Of

The existentialists don’t often get consulted when the Trolley Problem comes up, but I think they should be. They won’t tell you what the right answer is, but they can at least tell you why the right answer seems so elusive, and why your search for The Right Answer might really be a disguised way of avoiding the question.

Existentialism hopes to keep you from going off the track — by helping you avoid the temptations to duck out on your responsibility for choosing your own decision.

From the existentialist point of view, the essence of the Trolley Problem is that it puts you in a situation that will inevitably result in a bad outcome. You have become entangled in this without your consent, but once you’re entangled there’s no getting out of it. You cannot decide not to be involved. The trolley will soon taste blood and you are going to be responsible for whose blood it is. You have to own up to this and make a decision and accept responsibility for how you will respond.

It’s not fair, but that’s life. You may always try to mind your own business, but you don’t always get to decide which business that is.

There are many ways to try to evade the responsibility for making a decision or for the consequences that follow, and the existentialist says they’re all bogus.

For example, you might draw a distinction between acting (pull the switch, push the man) and remaining passive (stand there and do nothing) and pretend that responsibility only attaches to the first sort of decisions and not to the second. How can I be responsible? I did nothing! The responsibility must lie with the trolley company or the Hand of Fate! The existentialist says that won’t fly.

Or you might fashion a rhetorical scalpel to separate your decision from its consequences. For example: when you pulled the switch, your “intent” was to divert the trolley from killing the people further down the track, and it was only an “unintended consequence” that the trolley went on to kill the person on the other track. (You’re fooling yourself again, says the voice under the beret.)

You can also try muddying the waters — coming up with so many “what if”s that you feel justified saying “well, there’s just no telling what the right decision is.” In real life, there’s plenty of uncertainty and “what if”s, and they legitimately make decision-making difficult and the consequences of our choices hard to predict. But we have to be on guard against hunting for uncertainty in order to evade responsibility.

The way this shows up in the Trolley Problem is the temptation to add complexity to a simple story — How do we really know the fat man is fat enough to stop the train? Are we sure we know how to correctly operate trainyard switches? What if the endangered people on the track ahead are a pack of scoundrels or a suicide cult, and the innocent person on the alternate track is a brilliant doctor about to find a cure for cancer? — We hope if we cover the problem with enough hypotheticals we will be too confused to decide, and then we can look at the consequences of our indecision and say, “but for all we know, the alternative might have been even worse, so what can you do?”

The Most Seductive Temptation

But perhaps the most seductive of all of the temptations is the search for a system that can make the decision for you. Whatever you choose, the trolley is going to kill somebody. And you desperately want to be able to tell the next-of-kin “It wasn’t me — I had no choice!” while you point at some Reason that compelled you to do whatever you did. “It was not me who decided to pull the switch, but The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number;” or: “it was not me who decided not to push the man off the bridge, but the Commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’”

If you claim you found the correct answer inscribed on the fabric of the universe, so that all you had to do was to read it and obey its commands, you’re really making another attempt to avoid taking responsibility for making the decision yourself and owning the consequences. You will always be able to point to reasons that point to other reasons that point to still more, like a dog chasing its own tail, but you’re only playing hide-and-seek from the reality that the ultimate reason for your choice was “that’s what I chose.”

This is harsh medicine. When we go to a doctor, we don’t just want to be reminded that faith healing and crystals won’t cure our disease — we want to learn what will cure us. If existentialism neither relieves us of the burden of our responsibility nor guides us to the right answers — what good is it?

Existentialism may be more of a vaccination against bad answers than a source of good ones, but that may make it more valuable, especially when there’s so much snake oil out there, with such bad side effects. It’s a humble, human ethics that doesn’t promise more than it can deliver. The way Simone de Beauvoir put it: “Ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods.”

One problem with using the faulty ethical methodologies that existentialists criticize — “bad faith,” they call them — is that it’s being dishonest with yourself and not taking yourself seriously. It’s a way of disengaging from life and from reality: a sort of living suicide. But another problem is that it distorts your decision-making and encourages you to do things you wouldn’t do if you were thinking clearly. If you believe you can evade responsibility for your choices by making them conform to bad-faith excuses (for example: choosing inaction rather than action, choosing to obey the law because it is the law or to follow orders because they are orders, choosing whatever The Bible says or what was in your morning horoscope, conforming to the opinions of the majority), you will be biased toward decisions that come packaged with such excuses, rather than to good decisions. And you’ll be vulnerable to excuse-hawking scoundrels — gurus, demagogues, politicians, and the like — all eager to sell you the release from responsibility that you crave, for a price.

Existentialism protects you from the fatal costs of ethical disengagement, and, though it doesn’t always give you much help in finding the right answers, it doesn’t let the wrong answers get away with their seductive lies.

Clang, Clang, Clang… to the End of the Line.

A fanciful story like the Trolley Problem makes our conundrum easier to identify. Once we have been made aware of it, we may begin to hear the clang of the runaway trolley day in and day out. In most every waking moment we make decisions that affect the lives of others. How much have we been sleepwalking through these decisions or pretending that they were never ours to make? In Albert Camus’s The Plague, one of his characters describes the horrifying burden he felt when he realized how entangled he was in the lives around him:

We can’t stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody.… I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace.

It’s no wonder we are tempted to disengage, and to grasp at excuses to pretend this plague away. The Trolley Problem is more than just a thought experiment: it’s a metaphor for the entangled, uncertain, precarious lives we live. The trolley is screaming down the track towards its victims, and what happens next is up to you. You can no more rely on a philosophy than on a coin flip. How will you decide?