The Trolley Problem
This is a famous thought experiment by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 which makes us think about our actions, their respective consequences and our ‘moral threshold’. So what is the predicament?
Imagine you’re on your typical after-dinner walk enjoying the fresh air and the bustle of city life. As you’re crossing the street, you notice a trolley is hurtling down the tracks and is heading towards an oblivious group of tourists who are too busy taking photographs. Fortunately, you happen to be near a junction where you could use a lever to shift the tracks and send the trolley in a different direction. However, you also notice an old man slowly crossing the tracks in this other direction. What do you do? Would you pull the lever to save the group but cause the death of one?
There are two main theories in ethics: Consequentialism and Deontological. Consequentialism theories focus on the consequences or results of actions. One of the famous forms of consequentialism is utilitarianism which proposes that actions should be taken such that we attain the “the greatest good for the greatest number”. In this case, we would argue that pulling the lever is a good action because it saves more people than it kills so as bad as it sounds, there is a ‘net’ gain. On the other hand, Deontological theories state that actions should follow a moral code and the consequences should not be taken into consideration. Therefore, in this case, we would not pull the lever as we are effectively killing a person with our actions. If we just walked away, technically, we have done nothing wrong.
You can see why this thought experiment has confused millions of people around the world and has made them question their internal moral system.
This thought experiment actually has a couple more classic variations:
- Instead of pulling a lever, you have the option of pushing a large man next to you in front of the trolley which would most definitely halt it and save the group. Would you push him?
- Instead of the group of people being on the tracks, they are actually in hospital in need of different transplants in order to survive. Would you kill a recovered and healthy patient and harvest their organs in order to save the group?
Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, most people are unhappy with either pushing the man onto the tracks or killing the healthy patient even though it results in an identical outcome to the original. This suggests that we are okay with letting someone die (passive) but not killing them (active) which makes sense, yet from a consequence point of view, it’s rather puzzling!