Trolley Problem : An Islamic Answer


The “Trolley Problem” is a moral exercise to explore what is right and how we decide on what is actually “right”. Its seen as one of the most challenging and thought provoking issues in morality and ethics. Following on from our recent article : Trolley Problem : An age old Dilemma , now we will attempt to give an answer from an Islamic perspective.


The interesting thing about the “Runaway Train” dilemma is that, initially the reader feels the decision to be made is obvious, of course you would rather crash into one person than 5 people. Then if you take that principle to its logical conclusion, would you kill one person to harvest their organs to save 5 others? That seems very unpalatable. So, what is going on here? Is it that the two examples are actually different, or is it simply that the principle of sacrificing the few for the many is in fact wrong? The Runaway Cart scenario is often used as evidence that there is no objective morality, the argument would be that if there was a universal moral position, eg murder is wrong, how can it be that it is morally right to murder one person to save 5? The conclusion some reach is that therefore there is no objectivity in morality. 

Another way to reword that criticism of Objective Morality is the phrase “the ends justify the means”. This means that there is no one particular act or intention that is wrong in itself, even murder can be justified. The implication is that there is no objective morality, and that any suggestion of objective moral values are just an illusion of the human mind. This discussion we will come back to later.


Spock : the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
Spock the Utilitarian : the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.


There are different camps when looking at the solutions, or rather approaches to the issue, as one of the secondary points of contention is this, by what measure do we judge each approach? For example, if a person says I will take a completely Utilitarian view, and always do what is “best for the most”, how does one judge the outcome? Obviously by the Utilitarian values, it was the right decision, however if one uses a different moral compass they will have different views. What is interesting is that innately we all seem to share a common moral compass which can give some guidance in such matters. So to return to the point, one could take a utilitarian viewpoint throughout, and then in each case you would choose the act that has the most benefit for the most people, so this would result in the one person always being sacrificed for the many. On the surface this seems fair and very politically correct, no one is above the law and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, indeed, Spock, the Star Trek character who claimed a master-ship of logic held this view!

However, taking this approach does expose some darker consequences, essentially the individual’s rights are meaningless, they can be harvested for organs, sterilized, or terminated if no benefit to the community. The disabled, sick and the old will not be big fans of such a mindset, and frankly, neither is anyone else. It’s almost universally unpopular to take a completely utilitarian approach to all matters, but what is the moral objection exactly?

The utilitarian system would encourage abuse of the individual, or to make the moral argument very clear, it is essentially applying the concept that “the ends justify the means”. This concept is not acceptable morally because it implies that good things can come from a bad method, that good can come from evil. So if we return to the trains, pushing a fat man onto a track is murder, he was an innocent man that had done nothing wrong. It can not be morally acceptable that a good deed can start with killing an innocent person. This is even more clear in the third example of the doctor, and what is interesting is that without prompting, the vast, vast majority of people agree that killing the one patient to save the 5 is wrong. However, many struggle to explain why, especially when confronted about their response to the first train dilemma. The “trick” of the train dilemma is that one assumes in each example that the choice is the same, “would you sacrifice one person to save 5?” However, a deeper analysis suggests that what is really being asked is “under what circumstances would you choose one over 5“.

So Utilitarianism seems to have its issues, what is the alternative? The polar opposite is Categorical Moral Imperatives.  Categorical Moral Imperative, or CMI from here on, was famously put forward by the philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1795. Essentially, CMI is asking “What is morally right”, and by morally, Kant would add, rationally. So from a CMI perspective, it is not right to kill to save others. So they would turn the train, but not kill the fat man or kill the healthy patient. 

Traditionally, ethics is divided into three types, Deontological, which is basically CMI, Teleogical which is basically Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics.


Deontology and Ethics

Deontological moral systems are characterized primarily by a focus upon adherence to independent moral rules or duties. Thus, in order to make the correct moral choices, we simply have to understand what our moral duties are and what correct rules exist which regulate those duties. When we follow our duty, we are behaving morally. When we fail to follow our duty, we are behaving immorally.

Teleology and Ethics

Teleological moral systems are characterized primarily by a focus on the consequences which any action might have (for that reason, they are often referred to as consequentalist moral systems, and both terms are used here). Thus, in order to make correct moral choices, we have to have some understanding of what will result from our choices. When we make choices which result in the correct consequences, then we are acting morally; when we make choices which result in the incorrect consequences, then we are acting immorally.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue-based ethical theories place much less emphasis on which rules people should follow and instead focus on helping people develop good character traits, such as kindness and generosity. These character traits will, in turn, allow a person to make the correct decisions later on in life. Virtue theorists also emphasize the need for people to learn how to break bad habits of character, like greed or anger. These are called vices and stand in the way of becoming a good person.


So what about Islam?


We have a statement in the Quran :


5|32|Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel: that whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind…

So Islam is about principles, and thus immediately leans towards CMI. From an Islamic point of view the nature of the outcome. However, if we study the verse a second time, there are some exceptions. It says that killing is wrong, unless it is to prevent worse sins in the community. So if there is an exception, then it can not be CMI. To read more about Islamic Ethics, click here.


4|135|O you who believe! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even if against yourselves, or your parents, or your relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, God takes care of both. So do not follow your desires, lest you swerve. If you deviate, or turn away—then God is Aware of what you do.

Often when we determine what is morally right, we look at the outcome of the action, eg, is anyone harmed? who benefits? The Quran is saying that the our benefit can not override what is just. For example, if a person made a mistake and owes money, then he can not lie and say it was someone else just to avoid paying the money back. Even though paying the money back will leave him more poor, he is morally obliged to do so. So this verse appears to say that justice is an overall arching principle and supersedes individual rights and motivations.


5|8|O you who believe! Be upright to God, witnessing with justice; and let not the hatred of a certain people prevent you from acting justly. Adhere to justice, for that is nearer to piety; and fear God. God is informed of what you do.

This verse from the Quran also explains that justice is the most superior consideration, even higher than dealing with enemies and people who have oppressed you. Which leads one to the conclusion that being just is more important than “crushing” ones enemies.

So in regards to the Trolley problem, Islam appears to be saying that we must be just, we must not consider our rights as above others, and we can not kill except for as a deterrent punishment for murders or to stop corruption (war). The outcome should be just and we should try to make the best possible outcome from our actions.

The Trolley problem is complicated because of the way it is framed.

If we take the first option as a binary choice of “left or right”, then we can turn the trolley to cause the least suffering. However if we are saying the decision is one of action or inaction, then we should not sacrifice one person to save 5. Nor kill the fat man or kill the healthy patient. The charm of this dilemma is the ambiguous nature of the question. As the problem is framed differently. For example in the last example of the sick patient, it’s much more obvious and intuitive , very few people even consider killing a healthy person to save others. The earlier train examples are the same dilemma at heart, but framed differently. 

So for clarity, my opinion on how I would act is as follows. 

I would turn the train to what ever position would cause the least suffering. 

I would not push the fat man in front of the train, nor would I kill a healthy patient to save 5.




There are those who claim there are no moral categorical moral principles, and instead it all depends on situation, so in certain situations anything can be the “right” thing to do.

If someone says “lie or I will kill an innocent person”, then lying becomes the right or moral thing to do. So is there is no objective morality? 

The reply to such accusations is this, firstly, this is coercion, so its not a free choice. Secondly there is a hierarchy of morality. Eg it would be better to lie than kill innocent, if being forced between the two, but that doesn’t mean either is “right”. Its just more right to lie than to murder.

This is where Islam’s morality branches from CMI and Utilitarianism. As explained here, an action in itself is neither good or bad, it requires an intention for it to be judged. The intention is “what is the intended result” of the action. So from an Islamic perspective, in order for an action to be classed as “good” or morally “good”, it must be an action that is just, and have a good intention.



Medina Minds Team

Medina Minds Team

A group of contributors who are working to publicize the reality of Islam and Muslims.

2 thoughts on “Trolley Problem : An Islamic Answer

  1. The unspoken foundation behind all of this is whether one believes in a god and afterlife. Without an All-Knowing God reading intentions and a day of judgement to reckify all wrongs it would be very hard to argue for an absolute right and wrong. While Islam does have a level of utaltarianism, it is imbedded within the moral code, so one can argue teleology is regulated by deontology in Islam. Planting a tree seconds before the end of the world can have no utility but is beneficial in reward, and this is the power of faith in morality.

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