A Solution to the Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem


In 1967 Philippa Foot presented us with the Trolley Problem. It is no small statement to say that it has vexed moral philosophy and ethics since its inception. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, one formulation goes something like this….

Imagine you were out for an afternoon stroll and came upon a bridge that overlooked a train track. The track splits in two and upon one of the tracks five men are playing a game of cards and eating lunch. On the other track is a solitary man who appears to be sleeping. As you look down upon this peaceful scene your heart starts to race. A runaway trolley suddenly rounds a far corner of the tracks. It’s painfully obvious that is going to hit the five men playing cards, a fact that they are unfortunately oblivious to. They are too far away for you to call out to them. In your panic you look around for some way to alert the men when you see the track switch only a couple of feet away. It occurs to you that if you were to throw the switch you would successfully divert the trolley’s path onto the other track, the one upon which lays the sleeping man. He won’t know what hit him and you will have saved the lives of five men. So… do you throw the switch?

When presented with the trolley problem a true Utilitarian would opt to throw the switch. For the Utilitarian the good of the many comes first. The only valid option here is to save as many lives as possible. Many of us, when first presented with the problem, would opt for the same whether we adhere to a utilitarian state of mind or not. Throwing the switch, while not an easy thing to do, is the logical thing to do. We do not intend for the sleeping man to suffer for our choice although there is no question that his demise is part of the solution.

Hold on though, we are not done. Let’s say that you are out for your stroll again and come across a similar scene. You are on your bridge and there are the five men sitting on the track with a runaway trolley bearing down on them. This time, however, there is no split and no switch to throw. There’s only five men and certain death. It appears to be a hopeless situation. Another man appears next to you, equally frantic. You notice that this man is large and that if he were to suddenly suffer an accident and fall onto the track below it might stop the trolley’s progress. Helping this accident along would appear to be the only way to save the five men. You can’t throw yourself off the train for you are not large enough to stop it. You must decide, and rather quickly, whether or not to push the man off of the bridge.

It’s not so easy this time is it? Regardless of your intellectual moral reasoning it would seem to bump up against some sort of innate moral values that implore you not to push the man onto the tracks. It’s a repulsive thought that wasn’t there when all that was required was to switch the tracks. In this case you do not have a switch sitting between you and the act of ending a man’s life. In this instance you will be directly responsible, at least physically, for the man’s death. Whereas your previous action was to throw a switch the sleeping man’s death was an unfortunate byproduct of that action. Here your action, and your intent, is to cause the man’s death in order to achieve the same end. Again, the cold analytics of Utilitarianism would seem to point you in the direction of gathering your strength and pushing the man off into space.

What I am going to do in short, especially for the Utilitarian, is to solve this dilemma. Before doing so let me first make a few adjustments to the scenario as presented. Forget the trolley, the bridge, and the fat man for now. This time you are not out for an afternoon stroll but are instead the Director of a large medical facility. You have been made aware of a situation involving five patients, all suffering unique forms of organ failure. There are no donors available. You are suddenly made aware that a healthy patient was treated that morning for a sprained ankle. The ankle has been bandaged and the patient will be released momentarily. It occurs to you that if you were to harvest this patient’s organs you could save the lives of the five. Much like the unfortunate fat man on the bridge, this young man’s death would essentially save the lives of the five terminal patients.

For some reason this is a little harder to stomach isn’t it? The two scenarios, that of the fat man and the healthy patient, aren’t that different. You could argue that the healthy patient scenario feels worse because there seems to be a cold calculation at play on the part of the medical director which wasn’t there when the decision was whether or not to push the fat man. That argument holds some validity but, in spite of that, the two cases are the same in that your intent is to cause the death of one man to save five and all I have done is to substitute the trolley with imminent organ failure.

The solution to this horrid little scenario is this: You do what you can, all that is medically possible, to save the five patients in the hospital. This is what your gut is telling you to do anyway isn’t it? The same goes for the unfortunate fat man on the bridge. You can enlist him to help you holler to the five doomed men, but pushing him to him to his death should be avoided at all costs.

Why you ask? Let me counter this with another question. Could you live in a society in which your life, at any moment, could be sacrificed to save the lives of a two people, one hundred, or even one thousand? Of course not. Working on a social structure comprised of organisms that have survived for millions of generations, nature has selected for the values and social norms that we currently enjoy.

Morality has evolved with us as has our altruistic tendencies (although some may argue that true altruism does not exist since and that all of our actions have selfish motivations driving them). A society which would allow, or even condone, the sacrificing of one life for many as part of its culture would not survive for long. It would appear, at face value, to promote the good of the many over the one, as Utilitarianism would suggest, but it is a naive view and one without a true understanding of the consequences. The immediate benefits to the five are evident, but the long-term negative effects of pushing the fat man, or harvesting the organs of a healthy patient, are many. Our sense of personal liberty, of which many of us hold near and dear to our hearts, would rally against a society that cast those liberties aside. It is one thing to remove or quarantine a cancerous cell, as we do an incarcerated criminal, but it is another thing to eradicate or quarantine a healthy cell so that the cells around it might enjoy more resources. The analogies are endless but I think you get the point.

Utilitarianism aside, we all feel the horror that accompanies the thought of pushing a man or a woman to his or her death. It is not a virtuous act nor one that plays particularly well with the morality that has evolved with us. It does nothing to serve the greater good. It would create a malignancy that would sit dormant before metastasizing with a vengeance to destroy its host.


Other “Trolley Problem” Items of Interest:

Edited on 8/12/2014

The following two tabs change content below.
Rick Coste is a writer, producer & podumentarian. He currently writes and produces the weekly 'Evolution Talk' podcast.

Latest posts by Rick Coste (see all)


  1. Why have you not come up with another solution. Instead of throwing the fat man off the bridge – jump, or is self-sacrifice out of the question. Instead of the elder man, why not your own organs? Why must someone else be sacrificed, are they less than you or me? However, this is all conjecture and hypothetical anyway.

  2. Thanks for the comment Glynnis. Self sacrifice is certainly an option in some cases, unfortunately not in this one as the large man’s girth is required to stop the train.

    • To Mr. Coste:

      You said that you can’t sacrifice the life of the fat man to stop the trolley from hitting the 5. But you never said if you would flip the switch or not. I personally would not flip the switch because had I not been there the 5 would have died anyways so I believe that we can’t sacrifice the one to save the many unless they accept that decision. Whould you flip the switch?

      • If I am being honest with myself, I would throw the switch. I have been reviewing some of the responses I’ve received and the arguments for and against throwing the switch are compelling. I have always been a Utilitarian as far as my philosophy goes, yet in a broad sense, when I apply my reasoning to the greater good of society the lines between Mills and Kant become blurred. I have to plant a flag somewhere and in this sense, it is on the side of saving the five men by throwing the switch. The one man’s unfortunate death, while foreseen, is not intentional, meaning that it is not my intent when I throw the switch. Perhaps I will get lucky and the man will wake up and avoid being hit. I can’t foresee the next few moments after the switch has been thrown other than the fact that the train will switch tracks. With the fat man scenario my intent is to cause the man’s death and that is something which I am unable to condone.

        • If the man can getup then the 5 people who are sitting can also see the trolley coming. And it may be possible that the man who is sleeping may the only bread earner of his family. And the 5 people may be doing nothing, they just pass time all day time. And eventually the trolley is coming on their track, it may be their luck that they didn’t sit on the other track and the single man didn’t sleep on that track. You cannot change the destiny, those 5 men are destined to be killed. They have made the decision to sit on that specific track. Or may be they are unlucky enough. And the single man lucky enough. Why are you not considering the consequences that may arise in the single man family.

    • that the issue with the fat man, whatever the scenario say, I DO NOT believe any man would stop a trolley, whatever the fat he have (or the trolley is really not massive and there a good chance that the 5 man will stop it with less death anyway) So pushing the fat man would be an additional death for no gain.
      As for the organs donor, too bad for the people with health issue, it’s life. beside if the guy is compatible with all 5, there a good chance they all are compatible with each other..wait for the first one to die naturally and harvest it for the other!
      Otherwise, hospital would become know to ‘kill the healthy to cure the sick,’ and will be avoided by everyone and MORE would die.

      come on, they ask if death is absolutely wrong then proceed to a scenario with a choice between death or more death.
      problems with these philosophy scenario is that they present ‘absolute’ dual choice, life is less absolute and there always more choice.
      and morality is not absolute either, you can always devise scenario to force a choice between tow bad one., but 99.9% of the time the choice are more nuanced and numerous.

  3. Is this another reformulation of what de Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood,” albeit with a slightly more constrained and artificial set of choices than the typical individual would be called upon to make?

    • In a sense it is if one approaches it from an evolutionary perspective, at least as far as my conclusion goes. I mean ‘evolutionary’ as it applies to group selection. The individual’s self interest affects the actions they take and if these values are shared amongst the group it will prosper. I have taken Foot’s artificial set of choices and set them at a global level. These individual selfish actions are selected as advantageous to the group. Tocqueville’s argument seems to align with this.

  4. If this was a real senario, if one was to push the fat man, would he be charged with murder? And would society allow him to be convicted?

    • If this were a real scenario there would follow a conviction for murder without question. Some would argue against this and the defense might say that this act saved the lives of five people who would otherwise be dead had the action not been taken. This is a dangerous perspective.

  5. I think it all comes down to intent. Wether you throw the swithch or push the fat man off the bridge you still take part in the demise of another person and in doing so taking what doesn’t belong to you….THERE live.

  6. For those who would not flick the switch, you are able to make that decision because your forefathers did flick the switch.

    • Agh… The old abortion argument. That’s a false dichotomy. Back to the drawing board with you minion.

  7. how is it then morally permissible for leaders to send soldiers(“healthy cells”) to die to protect a tribe, country, etc., esp if drafted – was Truman morally irresponsible for the atomic bombs to “save lives” ? most people say no….

  8. That’s not the original Trolley Problem Philippa presents in her essay. That’s a modified problem which lacks a very important point from the essay: the person who has to decide what to do is not a bystander. That person is ON the runaway trolley. Her life is threatened by the out-of-control trolley. She has to find a way to stop it and survive. It’s really a physics problem and not a philosophy problem.

    • Hi Rich. Thanks for the response! Philippa’s original essay ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’ was a thought experiment where she presented the problem of “the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to 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.” She was examining the moral implications of the choice being made. The Trolley Problem has definitely taken on a life of its own and has been modified in many ways overs the years.

      • What I find interesting in her original trolley problem is that she would assume the trolley driver would even be considering the ‘moral’ implications of whatever actions she was about to take. Foote seems to believe the driver is a philosopher and has the time to consider morality. The thing she doesn’t seem to recognize is that there are not 5 lives to be considered in the scenario but 6. The trolley driver’s life is also threatened by the runaway trolley. The trolley is going to crash. The driver’s problem is how to crash the trolley without being killed. So the driver is not outside the problem, like in almost all the other scenarios in which a bystander has to make the decision and it really is a moral dilemma. The driver is inside the problem and (I believe) morality is the LAST thing she would be worrying about. The only thing on her mind would be her survival. The trolley problem and the fat man in a cave problem are the only ones in which the issue is not morality but survival. None of the discussions about the trolley problem I have read (so far) seem to perceive the difference between someone who is inside the problem and someone who is outside it. I can’t be the first person who has noticed this.
        Thanks for your reply.

  9. The answer to the trolley/fat man problem(s) is obviously “Your question makes absurd assumptions; therefore, I refuse to answer it.” You cannot possibly know that the fat man is large enough to stop a fugging train (while also concluding that puny little you are obviously not large enough) unless you are the worst of anti-fat bigots with an incredibly poor understand of physics. And you don’t throw the switch for the trolley bc have you ever seen a switch just sitting there unattended waiting for any doofus to throw it? Do you know anything about the trolley schedule? Are you setting up a collision with another train? How fast can the trolley be going to safely make that turn without risking injury to all the passengers on board?

    That’s why I love the alternative you propose, bc the problem actually makes sense. It’s a real world scenario. And answer is a obvious “not just no, but HELL no. What kind of monster are you for even suggesting it?”

  10. Why are the people on the track to begin with? How do they not notice the trolley? Are they self obsorbed or just stupid. In either case, should you worry about saving them?

  11. Why are the people on the track to begin with? How do they not notice the trolley? Are they self absorbed or just stupid. Maybe the KNOW the trolley is on the way and are trying to commit suicide. In either case, should you worry about saving them?

    And what about the people on the train? How many are there? Will they die if the five people are hit? What if the one person is hit?

    • Those are the questions I had myself when I first encountered the trolley problem. What you have to remember is that these thought experiments are not meant to be taken at face value, in that they do not represent a real world scenario. What they are meant to convey is a moral dilemma to get at the root of how we would behave, or what decision we would come to, in an extreme situation.

  12. To me the answer is simple: Do Not Throw The Switch.

    For me, the heart of this is related to the idea of misfortune and “playing God” (or Fate). I think we accept that there exists misfortune in life, and generally the people whom misfortune befalls must shoulder this misfortune.

    Moral society can, and should, take steps to cure these misfortunes; but there must be an upper limit to the extent of these steps. I feel that, either consciously or subconsciously, the line is drawn when the curative actions would harm others.

    for example, the 5 people who are sick and dying are misfortunate, we can provide them with medical care to aid them, but it is immoral to kill someone else to cure them.

    If we were to take this action, then we would be “playing God”. Meaning, we, as humans, would be making valuations of human lives, are 5 lives worth more than 1? How about 2? What if we had 1 person who needed a heart, could we simply take it from another person? What if the person in need was rich, and the “donor” was poor, or a vagrant? What if the Person in need had a family and the “donor” was single? Young and old? 5 children vs. 3?

    We rightfully avoid these decisions altogether to remove any moral ambiguity. Those who die, do so at the hands of amoral fate, it is neither moral or immoral, simply unfortunate, and sad, but it is moral.

  13. I don’t think it is a particularly difficult puzzle. The answer is not to throw the switch or push the fat man or harvest the healthy man’s organs.

    In all the cases, by taking the action you are ending the life of a person who otherwise would not be dead. I do not see how that can be justified, even if it means saving the life of 5 other people. There is no particular rule that the lives of 5 people are more important than the life of 1 person, or that any individual has to make that decision.

    In other words, it is only a problem if you bind yourself to a strictly Utilitarian viewpoint. But you don’t have to….

  14. The notion of using thought experiments of this sort to gain insight into correct ethical behavior doesn’t make sense to me. The trolley problem is posed in such a matter-of-fact and “under ideal conditions” kind of way, that the experience of being in such a situation is completely flat and featureless. How are you going to expect people’s answers in a comfortable questionnaire setting to reflect how they’d act during that scenario? Where’s the adrenaline? What if one of the people on the tracks reminds you of a dead relative? What are the weather conditions? How fast are your reflexes? How skilled are you at conducting a speeding train? All of these plus an infinite number of questions regarding the specifics of the surroundings and the experience are completely ignored. Trivial and irrelevant questions to the purpose of the thought experiment you might say, but nevermind some ideal and sterilized thought experiment, what about actually being there and experiencing it? Isn’t the point of the experiment to see what we’ll actually do? No, the trolley problem does not help our understanding of what people will do under such extreme circumstances, but at the very most what people will do if they are confronted with such a thought experiment in a relatively comfortable and relaxed setting. Either the stakes should be lowered, or the setting of the experiment must be more exciting and conformable to the actual thought experiment. The former would tell us nothing, and the latter option, where the experiment would be played out in reality, would just be unethical!

    • The Trolley Problem is really a generic name for a whole set of various scenarios which are set up to test people’s decision-making in different moral situations. If you ask people to make decisions in various Trolley Problem variations, not just one, you find interesting anomalies. If you tweak the scenario in subtle ways you find people will respond with different and often contradictory answers depending on the circumstances in the scenario. This can give you useful information on the probability of likely choices people might make in moral situations, and also the things that affect the choices. Such as – what if the person on the track was your spouse or child? Would you kill one person to save 5 strangers, or 5 strangers to save the 1 person you love? There are a couple of good books which have recently come out that discuss the Trolley problem. One is called (I think) the Trolley Problem. The other is Would You Kill the Fat Man?

  15. First, I think those that want to ask questions about conditions not described in the problem or add conditions to it are having trouble answering it as given. It is a (perhaps unconscious) stalling tactic. At any rate if I were doing it I would list them as being unable to answer. There is an unlimited number of questions that could be asked and therefore it is impossible to cover all of them in the statement of the problem. Unless perhaps it is stated in the problem that what is given here is all the information you have.

    Second, I have just come upon the trolly problem because I did a search for it after hearing the name of it only in the movie ‘The Fault in Our Stars’.

    Finally, It makes me think of what seems to me is happening in the USA right now. People are making decisions that benefit the few and harm the many. I realize there is probably no way I can put this to where it doesn’t instantly become political. But that is alright.

    On another page I saw where MRI’s checked activity in the ‘rational/reasoning’ and in the ’emotional’ parts of the brain when people were asked to answer the problem. There was a tendency for those with more activity in the reasoning portion than the emotional to move the switch. And those with more activity in the emotional portion had a tendency to not move the switch.

    In unrelated studies there is some suggestion that being a liberal or a conservative may be related to the way a person’s brain works. Subjects were shown both pleasant and disgusting images while taking an MRI. They found that some reacted more to the pleasant and some more to the pleasant images. They found that they could predict at better than chance who was a conservative and who was a liberal from which type of images had the higher activity. Those with higher levels to pleasant images tended to be liberals. Those with higher levels to disgusting images tended to be conservatives. It was discussed that possibly the way the brain worked determined who was liberal and who was conservative.

    In the trolly problem one is choosing if the sacrifice of the few is justified by the saving of the many. In being/voting for conservatives or liberals one is choosing if the few should sacrifice for the many or the many should sacrifice for the few. That is of course how I see it politically. Your view may vary.

    So are our moral choices really our choice or just a function of the way our brains function? Or is there even a distinction between the two. If a trait of making certain decisions in certain circumstances has survival and reproduction advantages and is passed on, then how is it passed unless it is the way the brain operates. Given this at least some of what decisions we will make is decided at birth.

    A fascinating area of thought deserving much research in many different fields!

  16. While the idea that society’s will means the surgeon should not kill the patient seems a definitive solution, add an element to the thought experiment and it becomes hazy. Say the society is racist, extremely so, and the patients are racist as well. Say the patient who is to die is a member of the ethnic minority, and society and the patients believe the person’s organs could be put to better use. You say a society that would sacrifice a few for the good of the many would not last long, but you cannot deny racism has, and still does, exist in long-lived societies, that there have minority groups throughout history society would gladly sacrifice for the good of the majority. You say our altruism has come with our evolution, but members of society conditioned to think of a minority as inferior would think it was permissible to kill the patient for the sake of five.

    I hope we still believe it wrong to kill the patient, but the appeal to society and evolutionary moral intuition is not the way to go.

  17. My modification of organ failure dilemma:

    You are on the Mars mission.
    There are only 7 people: 1 you as super-surgeon (with robotic surgeon assistants), 5 with organ failure and 1 with sprained ankle.
    Minimally 4 people are needed every Martian day for maintenance station (protection, energy, air, water, & food supply), otherwise all will die
    (Robotic surgeon cannot maintain station.)
    What will you do?

  18. I think the example of whether or not to push the Fatman would make far more sense if you applied some physics to be more believable, and the only reasonable example would elicit a far more emotional response.

    So let’s say, that a loaded mine cart is barreling towards some small children, possible 4-5 year olds playing on the track. Obviously the size and weight would kill a rather large man of about 350 lbs, but it would definitely stop or be derailed by his mass and weight. However, it would also easily crush the children before continuing on its course, because they only have a weight of 40-50 lbs a piece.

    So, would you push one man to his death to save the lives of 5 small children?

    • While killing one to save five or older to save younger seems like the rational thing to do, it may not be. The idea is to do what does the ‘greater good’. But the result of acting so that someone lives and someone dies doesn’t ensure the greater good. Either could take some action that would lead to a cure for cancer and you have no way of knowing which. The only thing for sure is that if you act to take another life, then you have crossed a line that I would not wish to cross based on mere speculation.



  1. What is the most valuable thing you learned in KNES 380 and why? | johndoblog - […] into this course because of how different it is from the science classes for the Kinesiology major. Studying philosophy …
  2. The Trolley Problem | Scripturient: Blog & Commentary - […] I hadn’t realized how much traction this question had gained as a philosophical debate. Philosophy Walk […]
  3. Anti-vax: wrong but not irrational « Mind Hacks - […] have direct experience of the negative consequences of not vaccinating. Finally, we know that people feel differently about errors …
  4. Throwing Science At Anti-Vaxxers Just Would make Them Far more Hardline | Massive Tutorials - […] have direct experience of the detrimental effects of not vaccinating. Eventually, we know that men and women sense differently …
  5. El Problema del Tranvía ó... “¿Mato al gordo?” - Naukas - […] http://philosophywalk.com/solution-trolley-problem/ […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>