The Trolley Problem
the popular meme explained

About The Trolley Problem

"The Trolley Problem" (or "The Trolley Dilemma") is a thought experiment proposed by the British philosopher Philippa Foot in her paper entitled 'The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect'. Since Foot's publication in Oxford Review in 1967, a number of other hypothetical scenarios have been proposed by philosophers and others alike - some of serious nature and some for comedic purposes. Whether serious or comic (or indeed tragic), each thought experiment has a number of similarities. The essence of the trolley problem is to present an extreme scenario that puts our ethical principles to the test. The original thought experiment is described by Foot as follows:

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose airplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man's life for the lives of five.

Foot's original publication may have gone unnoticed if it were not for Judith Jarvis Thomson's later publication in The Monist in 1976. Thomson scrutinised Foot's thought experiment and was among the first to propose a variation of what has now become a popular meme. She revisited the trolley problem once again in 1985 in the Yale Law Journal in a paper with the rather appropriate title: 'The Trolley Problem', where she expanded on the previous work by Philippa Foot and her own views expressed in the 1976 publication. Here is a relevant excerpt:

Suppose you are the driver of a trolley. The trolley rounds a bend, and there come into view ahead five track workmen, who have been repairing the track. The track goes through a bit of a valley at that point, and the sides are steep, so you must stop the trolley if you are to avoid running the five men down. You step on the brakes, but alas they don't work. Now you suddenly see a spur of track leading off to the right. You can turn the trolley onto it, and thus save the five men on the straight track ahead. Unfortunately, ... there is one track workman on that spur of track. He can no more get off the track in time than the five can, so you will kill him if you turn the trolley onto him (Thomson 1985, 1395).

The Trolley Problem would not be a problem if it did not demand its audience to question their moral principles. The upshot is, being the driver of a runaway trolley/tram, do you:

   a. do nothing and let the trolley/tram crush the five people? or,
   b. steer from one track to another, and subsequently kill one person?

Answers to The Trolley Problem

So this is the trolley problem in a nutshell, though anyone familiar with the popular memes would also be familiar with the thought experiments. What is more interesting are the answers that one can choose from. Because while there are seemingly only two choices (do nothing and kill five, or act and kill one), the rationale behind each choice gives us a better insight into our ethical principles - and indeed, demands that we revalue our already extant values.

Below you can find five choices. Each of these choices is based on one of the two choices given above; however, it is followed by reasons why the (in)action took place. This is not a test which has to be taken quickly. Take the time and think about each of the answers carefully. Once you have found a reason that seems closest to you, click or tap the answer to see which ethical paradigm best describes your choice.

  1. Steer the trolley away from five and kill one person, because it is better that five people live than one. By doing so, I maximise the happiness and well-being of more people.
  2. Steer the trolley away from five and kill one person, because that is the right thing to do irrespective of well-being of others. Saving five lives is not about happiness or well-being, it is simply the kind of thing a virtuous person would do.
  3. Do nothing and let five people die, because steering the trolley would amount to actively killing someone, which is inherently wrong. Anyway, it is possible that something else may happen and the trolley will not kill the five people on the track.
  4. Do nothing and let five people die, because that is what all religions of the world teach. The Ten Commandments (and their equivalents) explicitly states 'Though Shall Not Kill!' and steering the trolley is precisely that: killing.
  5. Do nothing and let five people die, or steer the trolley away from five and kill one person - this is not a 'choice' that can be made sincerely. The 'choice' depends on our cultural upbringing and education and varies between different communities of people.

Bibliography & Other Sources