Ryan Schuetzler

Researcher and techie extraordinaire

The Problem With Trolleys

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What is it about the Trolley Problem that is so compelling? What is the trolley problem you ask. It goes a little like this:

Imagine you are the driver of a trolley that has gone out of control. Ahead of you is a split in the tracks, and you can send your trolley careening down either path. Down one path is a group of people crossing the track. Down the other is one man. You know that whichever path you choose, the people on the track will die. Which way should you go?

Clearly the answer is to go down the path with only one person. It is obviously better that only one person should die rather than five. Of course, it is through no fault of his that he will die. Wrong place, wrong time. That is all.

Of course, that isn’t much of an ethical dilemma. But what happens when we change the situation just a bit?

Imagine you are no longer the driver, but a bystander watching a runaway trolley careen down the tracks. You see it is heading for a group of five people who cannot get out of the way in time. They will die. You also see that there is a split in the path, and down the other path is only one man. You notice you are standing next to the switch. If you flip the switch, the trolley will change tracks and kill the one instead of the five. Should you flip the switch?

This one gets just a little bit harder? Again, it seems like the best choice would be to flip the switch, but it is not as easy a choice as in the first situation. But it really gets hairy when:

Imagine you are standing on a footbridge overlooking the trolley tracks. You see the train is out of control and going to kill the five people ahead of it on the tracks. Standing next to you is a rather large man wearing a huge camping backpack. By pushing this man onto the tracks, you could stop the train, thus saving the lives of the five innocent people who are on the track. Do you push the man onto the track?

BaBAM! What now? What is it about this change in the situation that has changed so drastically the way we think about the problem. In all three cases the choice seems simple: one life, or five? In any case the people who would die are innocent of any crime. They all just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In each case, some death was inevitable. So what makes them different?

This is a common ethical dilemma that we discussed recently in one of my courses. Let me know what you think. And of course, if you feel like learning more about the Trolley Problem, Wikipedia is a great place to start.