The Trolley Problem

Good Morning-

Here I introduce a thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem as part of a larger series of the different positions, objections and formulations of the problem.  This is a moral dilemma in which there is no right answer but one which I have had a great deal of experience teaching to students.  It was a great discussion to have as a language lesson because the most indifferent students to my classes wanted fiercely to state an opinion.


The Trolley Problem originated in 1967 by the British philosopher Philippa Foot.  The experiment has been used in discussions about ethics and psychology to see how subjects respond when faced with an impossibly fraught scenario.

Here I will discuss two basic formulations.

1: The subject witnesses a trolley moving out of control down a set of tracks.  In the tracks ahead of the trolley five people are tied to the tracks and face imminent destruction.  However, the subject notices a switch which can change the direction of the trolley to another tracker with only one person tied to the tracks.

2: This time the subject is on a footbridge over the tracks with a stranger who wears a large backpack.  Understand that the subject’s own weight is insufficient to stop the trolley if he were to sacrifice himself, but the stranger’s weight combined with the backpack could stop the trolley however the stranger with the backpack would be killed.  (In some versions the stranger is an obese individual.  I prefer the backpack scenario to make more neutral judgments about the stranger.)

Here it is as an image:trolley-problem

The essential question of the subject is this: Will you take an action that will save a net of four lives?

First of all, students have always tried to fight against the formulation of the question.  Self sacrifice is an easy desire, some students stating that they would remove the stranger’s backpack and throw themselves down.  Given that the trolley problem is an absurd configuration it makes sense that subjects have this impulse, but it misses the point.  The point of the dilemma is that there are no good options.

The Trolley Problem has been used as a test for utilitarian values.  Defined by Jeremy Bentham as the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  If the subject chooses to sacrifice the one to save the five this is evidence of a utilitarian disposition.  But it is uncomfortable because the act of throwing the switch or of pushing the stranger makes the subject complicit.

I introduce these two variations to demonstrate different methods of thinking.  Brain scans of subjects given the first problem where they are asked to throw a switch show that the areas of the brain involved in cognitive reasoning become activated.  The trolley problem becomes a math problem.  In the second variation brain scans show activity in the emotional areas of the brain which makes the benefit in numbers harder for the subject to see.  And indeed, test subjects are far more likely to sacrifice in the first variation of the experiment.  In the second variation only about 10% of people say that they would push the person.  I find that this correlated almost perfectly with my students’ responses to the problem.

There are an infinite number of ways to make the question more interesting.  What if we imagine that the people tied to the tracks and the stranger on the footbridge are not strangers but politicians, scientists, family members, janitors, the disabled?  What if the number is not five lives saved but a hundred?

My own conclusions on this experiment are that I’m very utilitarian when all of those involved are strangers.  I’m morally uncomfortable with this conclusion because I see that I am also creating a justification for government orchestrated torture.  What if a suspect might have information that would lead to safely defusing a bomb in a densely populated city?  Utilitarianism concludes that the suffering of one person is permissible if it leads to protecting a city’s worth of people.

The answer perhaps is that there is no categorically imperative response to the trolley problem.  In the limited scenario in which one pushes or pulls a lever to save five lives the conclusions are presumed to stop there (although many students would look at this as in they would be held legally responsible- which was discouraging because it implies that the law is above protecting life).  However, I am categorically against the use of state orchestrated torture because it damages the integrity of free states and prolongs already intractable culture wars.  Those are big claims I hope to unpack later.




2 thoughts on “The Trolley Problem

  1. Pingback: Trolley Problem- Doctor Variation | The Way Out

  2. Pingback: Trolley Problem- Playing God | The Way Out

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