The Trolley Problem

By Theodore Lai, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio

The dilemma presented is simple. A trolley is running out of control on a railroad track. On the track stand five people oblivious to their impending doom. It is possible to flip a switch and send the trolley down a different track. Unfortunately, on this track lies a lone individual who will most certainly be killed in place of the five.

What should one do? More interestingly, how should one define right and wrong in such a scenario? The understandably quick reaction would be to flip the switch: to choose the utilitarian path of maximizing the greatest benefits and minimizing the costs. Would that mean, however, that we are doing right by killing the lone individual? Does the saving of five lives justify the taking of one? There are two ways to look at this.

Consequentialist Moral Reasoning
The ideology behind this line of reasoning is to consider only the aftermath of the possibilities presented in a situation. It looks at the benefits and costs of the actions that lead to the situation’s conclusion, and determines morality according to the amount of damage suffered. It weighs the possibilities according to the action’s returns, and is practical and economic in its nature. In this case, it is right to kill one man to save five, as there is a greater return of five men as opposed to one.

Arguments to this approach
Such a line of reasoning is useful when dealing with inanimate objects or logistical issues. However, the problem at hand involves the lives of human beings, entities possessing thought and emotion. Choosing the death of one to save five proportions each life as equal to the other, and places their value according to quantity. The approach, while practical, has the side effect of apathy in its judgment.

Categorical Moral Reasoning
This line of reasoning looks at morality in the situation’s immediate and direct context. It determines right and wrong after examining the actions meted out, and employs judgment based on the action’s merit. In this case, it is wrong to kill one man to save five, since the very act of taking a life constitutes the sin of murder.

Arguments to this approach
This approach, while beautiful in its simplicity, ignores too many aspects of the situation. Intentions, meaning and situational factors surrounding the act of taking a life is ignored, and judgment is based on the parochial view of the flagrant act in question. Such reasoning also does not take into account any benefits or losses of the act; its weakness lies in the subtraction of its antithesis’s essential elements.

These attempts at finding justice are noble in their nature. It is therefore difficult to try and locate the superior approach, since both have clear lines of justification in their decision making. It is notable that both have their weaknesses in each other’s strength; looking at the after math forgets the act committed and vice versa. Each shines where the other fails.

Consider, then, that a clear difference lies in the juxtaposition of the two approaches: apathy and empathy. Conseqentialist reasoning is apathetic in its nature since it treats the elements being weighed as equal and whole. Categorical reasoning is empathetic in its nature as it determines judgment based on the very nature of the situation.

Should we therefore apply a utilitarian (consequentialist) concept to something as complex and malleable as human lives? It is convenient to assume the taking of one as opposed to five lives. But what if, by killing one man, we end up taking away a contributing member of society and releasing five criminals? The utilitarian perspective of treating human lives as pawns that can be sacrificed for the greater good has a disturbingly detached quality to it.

This is demonstrated by the variation to the trolley problem: the fat man variation. As suggested by Judith Jarvis Thompson, what if instead of a lone individual and a separate track, we have a fat man standing on a bridge over the trolley? If one were given the power to push the fat man over, he would stop the trolley from running over the five people but would be killed in the process.

The trolley problem and fat man variation are essentially the same scenarios. What differs, interestingly, are the responses to them. The trolley problem sees the utilitarian perspective as justified. The fat man variation, however, strangely labels it as wrong. It seems wrong that one can push over the fat man, to decide his fate against his will.

The fat man variation, therefore, shows the key flaw of utilitarianism. The philosophy’s cold approach to determining justice is highlighted when one is seen directly taking a life as opposed to simply flipping a switch: in other words, the lack of empathy in the approach.

Following this, categorical reasoning should be employed as the key judge in determining right and wrong. If one were to choose the consequantialist line of reasoning, he forgets the malevolence that flipping the switch entails as demonstrated by the fat man variation.

It should be noted, however, that the utilitarian view cannot be ignored. The noble intentions of saving five people should be considered and balanced with the killing of one person. In other words, saving five lives should be considered separately with the taking of one. Persecution should therefore be made on these separate acts.

A final thought to utilitarianism and the trolley problem is how increasing the general happiness does not mean everyone walks away happy. Utilitarianism seems to ignore the minority in its solution, and assumes that there can be no perfect solution in which everyone benefits. Just like how saving five lives entails the loss of one, a ninety-nine percent popularity vote will leave one percent in the ditch. What is admittedly sad is how utilitarianism seems to admit the imperfection of the world, and how it tries to live and endure this fact; hence: the greatest good for the greatest cause.

Inspired by episode 1 of Michael Sandel’s series of lectures: “Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do?”


  1. Daryl Tan

    Interestingly enough, this argument is seen mainly on the grounds of the inherent value of the humans themselves, albeit considering humans as more than just statistical figures, ie. it makes a difference whether you save a criminal, or a contributing member of society. But in this context, what are the five people standing on the track doing in the first place? The fact that one has to flip a switch to divert the trolley implies that the particular track is the trolley’s intended route. Out of control or not, the trolley would have been going that direction. On the other hand, the lone individual is standing on a track where no trolley is expected to cross.

    Considering another variation of this dilemma which replaces the individuals with children playing on the track, one has to keep in mind that humans, with thought and emotion, are not inanimate objects and hence are able to make decisions. Should they then be held accountable for their own actions and to suffer the consequences? In the children scenario, five children are playing on the main railroad track, and one lone child is playing on the deserted unused track. Should we then sacrifice the one child who assumed not to expect any trolleys approaching in order to save the five who are making a risky choice to play at the active railroad track?

  2. If one were to fully immerse himself in the problem and see it as a dilemma that has to be solved, he loses the philosophical point of the thought experiment. Its true that the 5 people are on the trolley’s intended route, and also that the side track probably wasn’t meant for that trolley. I think we should remember however what the tracks represent: choices that one has to make in order to fulfil the restlessness of ethical reasoning. The switch, tracks and trolley are elements present in the thought experiment that help us see the philosophical point of the problem, and perhaps question our own beliefs as to what is right or wrong.

    In the child variation as you suggested, it is interesting to consider the problem from the perspectives of the “victims” themselves. The point of the thought experiment, however, is to discern and question right and wrong according to what one does when presented with a problem involving these 6 lives. Not to say that the victims opinions are irrelevant, but to recognize the beauty of the problem in itself: to realize how feeble and precarious our sense of morality truly is.

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