The Trolley Problem

Here is the original trolley problem, created by British philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967.


A driver of a runaway tam sees five people ahead on the track. He can either allow the tram to stay on the main track, thereby killing them all ( for an unstated reason, they are unable to get off the track ) or he can steer the tram onto a sidetrack, where only one person will be hit and killed.

Should he steer the tram onto the less-occupied track, killing one person rather than five?

trolley problem


In 1985, an American philosopher named Judith Jarvis Thomson expanded the scenario a bit.

You see the trolley barreling down the track out of control, and you are standing by a switch. You can allow it to hit and kill five, or you can throw the switch and detour the trolley so that it hits and kill only the one person on the siding.

The book “THE TROLLEY PROBLEM” takes us through the statements of different actors in our society such as The Police Man, Psychologist, The Judge, The Jury and few others. The book also talks about different views of famous philosophers.

Jeremy Bentham:

The rightness or wrongness of an act depends entirely upon its consequences and that our actions should be guided by the principle of creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. It has also been called utilitarianism meaning “good” simply means “what ever is most useful in maximizing happiness”

Immanuel Kant:

It is always wrong to treat people merely as means rather than as ends in themselves. In this case, if you were flipping the switch that would kill one person to save five others, then the sixth man had been used solely as a means of savings others, with no consideration for his right to not have his very life taken.

St. Thomas Aquinas:

Principle of double effect – An act to be morally good may have bad effects as a by-product, but bad means must not be used to bring about a good end.

Professors view:

This is one of the interesting chapter as it talks about the analogies. We frequently hear analogies these days, some times before the message is delivered, some times immediately after the message.

This chapter in the book illustrates why it is very important to hone the tools we use to ask questions and make decisions. For example, the prosecutor will open his case in the book with an analogy like this,

Dr. Rodney Mapes, a trauma surgeon called to the emergency room in a large technical hospital in Philadelphia. A terrible multi car collision had just occurred on a near by interstate highway, and six patients had been rushed to the hospital. Triaging the six, Dr. Mapes quickly determined that two patients needed kidney, the third needed a heart transplant, the fourth the liver, and fifth the lung. Mapes was worrying about where he could possibly find donors for these patients when he discovered that the sixth patient, a thirty-five year old male had been sent to the hospital for observation and had no apparent injuries at all. Mapes then had the young man sent to the operating room, removed all of his organs, and transplanted to into five other patients.

Remember that the prosecutor is trying to prove that a crime has been committed by the person who flipped the switch which killed one person and saved five.

The defense attorney would use an analogy like this,

Clara Murphy was a passenger on a trolley whose driver fainted. Clara could allow the trolley to continue on the main track, killing five people standing on the track, or she could steer the trolley onto a siding, killing one man. A resounding 89 percent of the jury thought that that it was morally permissible for Clara to steer the trolley onto the siding.

From these two analogies, we can realize how much our mind swings from one side to another side. Here is the paragraph from the book which illustrates why analysis of analogies matter.

It matters because analogies always compare two things that are sort of alike and sort of different. This makes analogies both very useful and very dangerous. The danger in using analogies is that people often argue that because two things are similar in one respect, they must also be similar in another respect, when in fact the two things may not be similar at all in the second respect.

Is the trolley problem relevant today? Check this article about Google autonomous cars and The Trolley Problem

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