The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem

Watch the below video version of the trolley problem, a well-known moral dilemma analyzed from a utilitarian perspective.

The first version of the problem is sometimes called the “switch dilemma.” This is based upon the idea of a runaway trolley which is moving down the tracks toward five people who will be killed if it the trolley continues on its present course. You are a bystander and can save these five people by pulling a switch and diverting the trolley onto a different set of tracks. The added problem is that this switch will place the trolley on a different track that has only one person on it; however, if you pull the switch that person will be killed. Is it morally permissible to divert the trolley and prevent five deaths at the cost of one? Most people say it is, regardless of culture, gender, ethnicity, religion, or nationality.

Next we have what is sometimes called the “footbridge dilemma.” In this case, the trolley is again headed for five people. However, you are now standing on a footbridge over the tracks. Leaning over the side of the bridge is a very fat man (fat enough to stop the trolley). You are standing next to him on the footbridge and realize that the only way to stop the trolley and save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and onto the tracks. Is that morally permissible? Most people say it is not, regardless of culture, gender, ethnicity, religion, or nationality.

Answer the following: What is your own moral analysis of these two cases? Provide reasons to justify your position(s). If you agree with the majority of people regarding these two cases, then what makes it acceptable to sacrifice one person to save five others in the switch dilemma but not in the footbridge case? If you disagree with the majority of people regarding these cases, what explanation do you offer?

NB: In this thread, students often say what they would or wouldn’t do, could or couldn’t do, and then explain their feelings related to their choice (e.g. ‘I would pull the lever in the first scenario, but I could never push the man off the bridge because I would feel too guilty.’ Or ‘I would push the lever because I wouldn’t have to touch anybody, but I couldn’t push the man off the bridge because I wouldn’t want to directly murder someone.’) But a moral analysis is an analysis about why an action might be moral or immoral, with reasons. While we of course have emotional responses in considering what to do, such responses do not reason about the morality of an action. So, in your response, do not answer the question ‘how would you feel about each scenario?’ but rather ‘what would be the morally right action in each scenario?’

And just for fun, here’s a clip from The Good Place dealing with the trolley problem (and if you haven’t watched The Good Place, you should!):

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