Trolley Problem

Philippa Foot

The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics, first introduced by British philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, but also extensively analyzed by philosophers Judith Jarvis Thomson, Peter Unger, and Frances Kamm as recently as 1996. Outside of the domain of traditional philosophical discussion, the trolley problem has been a significant feature in the fields of cognitive science and, more recently, of neuroethics. It has also been a topic on various TV shows dealing with human psychology.

The general form of the problem is this: Person A can take an action which would benefit many people, but in doing so, person B would be unfairly harmed. Under what circumstances would it be morally just for Person A to violate Person B’s rights in order to benefit the group?

Foot’s original formulation of the problem ran as follows: ‘Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose airplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track onto another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.’

A utilitarian view asserts that it is obligatory to steer to the track with one man on it. According to simple utilitarianism (which says that the morally best action is the one that makes the most overall happiness), such a decision would be not only permissible, but, morally speaking, the better option (the other option being no action at all). An alternate viewpoint is that since moral wrongs are already in place in the situation, moving to another track constitutes a participation in the moral wrong, making one partially responsible for the death when otherwise no one would be responsible. An opponent of action may also point to the incommensurability of human lives. Under some interpretations of moral obligation, simply being present in this situation and being able to influence its outcome constitutes an obligation to participate. If this were the case, then deciding to do nothing would be considered an immoral act if one values five lives more than one.

The initial trolley problem becomes more interesting when it is compared to other moral dilemmas. One such is that offered by Judith Jarvis Thomson: ‘As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?’ Resistance to this course of action seems strong; most people who approved of sacrificing one to save five in the first case do not approve in the second sort of case. This has led to attempts to find a relevant moral distinction between the two cases.

One clear distinction is that in the first case, one does not intend harm towards anyone – harming the one is just a side effect of switching the trolley away from the five. However, in the second case, harming the one is an integral part of the plan to save the five. This is an argument Shelly Kagan considers, and ultimately rejects, in ‘The Limits of Morality.’ Some claim that the difference between the two cases is that in the second, you intend someone’s death to save the five, and this is wrong, whereas in the first, you have no such intention. This solution is essentially an application of the ‘doctrine of double effect,’ which says that you may take action which has bad side effects, but deliberately intending harm (even for good causes) is wrong.

Act utilitarians deny this. So do some non-utilitarians such as Peter Unger, who rejects that it can make a substantive moral difference whether you bring the harm to the one or whether you move the one into the path of the harm. Note, however, that rule utilitarians do not have to accept this, and can say that pushing the fat man over the bridge violates a rule to which adherence is necessary for bringing about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Another distinction is that the first case is similar to a pilot in an airplane that has lost power and is about to crash and currently heading towards a heavily populated area. Even if he knows for sure that innocent people will die if he redirects the plane to a less populated area – people who are ‘uninvolved’ – he will actively turn the plane without hesitation. It may well be considered noble to sacrifice your own life to protect others, but morally or legally allowing murder of an innocent person in order to save five people may be insufficient justification.

The further development of the fat man example involves the case, where the fat man is, in fact, the villain who put these five people in peril. In this instance, pushing the villain to his death, especially to save five innocent people, seems not just moral, but, just and even an imperative. This is essentially related to another famous thought experiment, known as ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario, which forces one to choose between two morally questionable acts. Several papers argue that ticking time bomb scenario is a mere variation of the trolley problem.

The claim that it is wrong to use the death of one to save five runs into a problem with variants like this: ‘As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. As in the first case, you can divert it onto a separate track. On this track is a single (fat) person. However, beyond that person, this track rejoins the main line towards the five, and if it weren’t for the presence of that (fat) person, who will stop the trolley, flipping the switch would not save the five. Should you flip the switch?’ The only difference between this case and the original trolley problem is that an extra piece of track has been added, which seems a trivial difference (especially since the trolley won’t travel down it anyway). So, if we originally decided that it is permissible or necessary to flip the switch, intuition may suggest that the answer should not have changed. However, in this case, the death of the one actually is part of the plan to save the five.

The rejoining variant may not be fatal to the ‘using a person as a means’ argument. This has been suggested by M. Costa in his 1987 article ‘Another Trip on the Trolley,’ where he points out that if we fail to act in this scenario we will effectively be allowing the five to become a means to save the one. If we do nothing, then the impact of the trolley into the five will slow it down and prevent it from circling around and killing the one. As in either case, some will become a means to saving others, then we are permitted to count the numbers. This approach requires that we downplay the moral difference between doing and allowing.

However, this line of reasoning is no longer applicable if a slight change is made to the track arrangements such that the one person was never in danger to begin with, even if the 5 people were absent. Or even with no track changes, if the one person is high on the gradient while the five are low, such that the trolley cannot reach the one. So the question has not been answered. Even in the situation where the people aren’t tied down due to a criminal act, but simply happen to be there without the ability to warn them, the out-of-control trolley is similar to the out-of-control airplane. Either 5/500 or 1/100 people are going to die as a result of the accident already in progress, and it is important to minimize the loss of life, despite the fact that the 1/100 are effectively being ‘used’ to spare the life of the 5/500. The 100 people (and their property) in the less-densely-populated area do in fact stop the plane too. Responsibility for this goes back to any criminal negligence that caused the accident to occur in the first place.

There is an alternative case by Judith Jarvis Thomson containing similar numbers and results, but without a trolley: ‘A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.’

Unger argues extensively against traditional non-utilitarian responses to trolley problems. This is one of his examples: ‘As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You can divert its path by colliding another trolley into it, but if you do, both will be derailed and go down a hill, and into a yard where a man is sleeping in a hammock. He would be killed. Should you proceed?’ Responses to this are partly dependent on whether the reader has already encountered the standard trolley problem (since there is a desire to keep one’s responses consistent), but Unger notes that people who have not encountered such problems before are quite likely to say that, in this case, the proposed action would be wrong.

Unger therefore argues that different responses to these sorts of problems are based more on psychology than ethics – in this new case, he says, the only important difference is that the man in the yard does not seem particularly ‘involved.’ Unger claims that people therefore believe the man is not ‘fair game,’ but says that this lack of involvement in the scenario cannot make a moral difference.

Unger also considers cases which are more complex than the original trolley problem, involving more than just two results. In one such case, it is possible to do something which will (a) save the five and kill four (passengers of one or more trolleys and/or the hammock-sleeper), (b) save the five and kill three, (c) save the five and kill two, (d) save the five and kill one, or (e) do nothing and let five die. Most naïve subjects presented with this sort of case, claims Unger, will choose (d), to save the five by killing one, even if this course of action involves doing something very similar to killing the fat man.

This scenario is similar to the fact that whenever a crime is in progress and someone calls the police, even though it is known well in advance that calls to police each year end up creating pedestrian and motorist deaths due to accidents, very few people would consider disbanding the police to ensure that no innocents should die en route to a crime scene. In the case where the five aren’t tied down due to a criminal act, it still falls into the category of diverting a crashing plane into a less-densely-populated area.

The trolley problem was first imported into cognitive science from philosophy in a systematic way by John Mikhail, who began testing trolley problems on different groups of people, including children and those from non-Western cultures, when he was a visiting graduate student in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Mikhail hypothesized that factors such as gender, age, education level, and cultural background would have little influence on the judgments people make, in part because those judgments are generated by an unconscious ‘moral grammar’ that is analogous in some respects to the unconscious linguistic grammars that support ordinary language use. Preliminary results pointed in that direction, and Mikhail’s initial findings have been confirmed and expanded to more than 200,000 individuals from over 100 countries.

In taking a neuroscientific approach to the trolley problem, psychologist Joshua Greene under psychiatrist Jonathan Cohen decided to examine the nature of brain response to moral and ethical conundra through the use of fMRI. They analyzed subjects’ responses to both the trolley problem involving a switch, and a footbridge scenario analogous to the fat man variation of the trolley problem. Their hypothesis suggested that encountering such conflicts evokes both a strong emotional response as well as a reasoned cognitive response that tend to oppose one another. From the fMRI results, they have found that situations highly evoking a more prominent emotional response such as the fat man variant would result in significantly higher brain activity in brain regions associated with response conflict. Meanwhile, more conflict-neutral scenarios, such as the relatively disaffected switch variant, would produce more activity in brain regions associated with higher cognitive functions. The potential ethical ideas being broached, then, revolve around the human capacity for rational justification of moral decision making.

Daniel Bartels of Columbia University found that individual reactions to trolley problems is context sensitive and that around 90% would refuse the act of deliberately killing one individual to save five lives. Further study by Daniel Bartels and David Pizarro focused on those 10% who made utilitarian choice. The experiment found that those who had stronger utilitarian leaning had stronger tendency to psychopathy, Machiavellianism, or tended to view life as meaningless. ‘The Economist’ magazine who reported this finding stated that ‘utilitarians, … may add to the sum of human happiness, but they are not very happy people themselves.’

In an urban legend that has been making the rounds since at least the mid-1960s, the decision must be made by a drawbridge keeper who must choose between sacrificing a passenger train or his own four-year-old son. There is a 2003 Czech film ‘Most,’ which deals with a similar plot. This version is often drawn as a deliberate allegory to the belief among some Christians that God sacrificed his son, Jesus Christ.

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