The “Trolley Problem” is a moral exercise to explore how we decide on what is actually “right”. Its seen as one of the most challenging and thought provoking issues in morality and ethics. Today we will be examining the problem and trying to understand the different answers to this shocking dilemma.
The moral dilemma is as follows, a train is hurtling down a track, you are the driver, you notice that there are 5 workers on the track, there is no way you can stop, and if you continue forward the 5 workers will certainly die. You notice there is a junction in the track, if you turn onto the other track there is only one person working on that section, so only one person would die, would you turn down the track? Or continue on and kill 5?
This moral dilemma was first proposed by Philippa Foot in 1967, the issue focuses on morality. Can it be right to kill one person to save 5? If you do nothing, then 5 people will die, if you change track, then one person will die. When presented with this question, the vast majority seem to lean towards killing the one person to save the 5, however is this morally acceptable? Can it be right to kill someone, to murder them, in order to bring about good for others?
There are several alternative scenarios which dig deeper into the moral principles at work here, so lets take a look at a more focused example. In this next scenario, you are on a bridge with a very fat man, the train track this time is straight, there is no alternative track. There is a train coming down the track, and just as before there are 5 men working on the track, they will certainly be killed if the train hits them. However, if the fat man was to block to train, it would stop the train and the 5 workers would survive, but the fat man would be killed. Its important to ignore the unrealistic physics here, this is a moral experiment and it doesn’t really matter if a fat man will or wont stop a train, in this example he will definitely stop the train and the 5 workers will survive.
The question then, is would you push the fat man onto the track to save the 5 workers? Again, if you do, you will kill or murder the one man, but save 5.
In the first example, most people tend to suggest to change track, killing the one to save the five, in the second example, its not as clear cut. People start to question, the physical act of throwing a man onto the track seems to disturb some. However what is the difference in reality? Morally, the two cases are similar, we are knowingly, and willingly sacrificing one person for 5.
The last example put forward by Judith Jarvis Thomson, will push the scenario to its limit, imagine you are a doctor, there are 5 patients, each one is dying. They all need a new organ to survive, each one needs a different organ. Whilst you are looking for an organ donor, a healthy patient walks into the clinic, he has all 5 organs that are needed. So if that one healthy patient was sacrificed, all five sick patients would be able to have the organs they require and recover. What is the right thing to do here? If we sacrifice the one healthy patient, 5 people will survive. In each case it appears that there is the option of either one person dying or 5 people dying, and the choice is one or 5.
So what is the correct moral position?
The important lesson to take from these moral exercises is not necessary “what is the right answer”, but rather “what is right ?”, as when some people are presented with these scenarios they naively look for a “way out” and try to find a solution where everyone lives, thereby completely missing the point. The issue that we must focus on is how do we determine what is “right” ? when is it right to kill? or steal? is it ever right to kill?
Traditionally this problems is tackled by either approaching the issue from a Utilitarian or Deontology perspective. The utilitarian view is that what ever act is the most useful the majority, then that act is the “right”, regardless of what needs to be done or what it means. This sounds simple enough, but is it realistic ? Should we consider the families of the people on the track? What about their potential to help society in the future? What about their past crimes? There are so many different factors and So from a utilitarian perspective, in each of the above situations, which ever option has the best outcome for the majority, then it should be done.
The Deontological view is known by different names, some people call it “Categorical Moral Imperatives” (CMI). The principle regarding this ideology revolves around the act itself. It has to be examined and seen if it is moral or not, one of the famous proponents of this view is the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He would argue that we must look at the act itself, and see if it were to be applied universally, would the world become a mess?
So from a Utilitarian view, in each scenario the option which helps the most people would be chosen and from a Deontological view no action would be taken, and the 5 would be killed each time.