A Solution to the Trolley Problem

The Trolley ProblemIn 1967 Philipa Foot presented us with the Trolley Problem. It is no small statement to say that it has vexed anyone with the slightest interest in moral philosophy and ethics since its inception. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, it 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 and bears down upon 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 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?

A true Utilitarian would opt to throw the switch. For the Utilitarian the good of the many comes first. The only 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 or not we adhere to a utilitarian state of mind.

Hold on though, we are not done. Let’s say that you are out for your stroll 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 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 one’s intellectual moral reasoning they would seem to bump up against some sort of innate Kantian moral values that implore you not to push the man onto 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. You could save the lives of five men. 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 but you are also aware that a healthy patient was admitted just 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 patients organs you could save the lives of the five. I could make this a little easier and have modified this scenario so that the patient is elderly and on life support, requiring one to pull the plug (similar to throwing the train switch) but I’ve instead gone straight to the “real dilemma”. Much like the one involving the fat man you must decide to directly bring about this man’s death. That is, of course, if you wish to save the lives of the five terminal patients.

For some reason this is a little harder to stomach isn’t it, although the scenario, and the options, are much the same? I have used this exact example, complete with the modifications, to bring my point, and the solution to the problem, home. Especially for those Utilitarians out there who struggle with the answer.

The answer is this: You do what you can, all that is medically possible, to save the five and the one (even though he only has a sprained ankle, so good for him). 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 thousand, or a hundred, or even two? Of course not. As a social structure comprised or 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, the argument goes, 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, by those who would opt to flick the track switch or push the fat man, 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 for the sole reason that it ‘seemed’ like the right thing to do 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.

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Rick Coste is a writer, podcaster & multimedia content provider. You can hear him weekly on a number of podcasts that include Philosophy Walk, Pursuing a Happy Life, & LifeHacks for Introverts.

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  1. says

    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. says

    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.

    • yakob says

      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?

      • says

        If I am being honest with myself, I would not 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. If I take this to its logical conclusion the actual question is whether or not I would want to live in a world where throwing the switch is the obvious choice. This is surprisingly, to me, where Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ plants its flag. 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.

    • says

      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.

  3. chris says

    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?

    • says

      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.

  4. Rick says

    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.

  5. Thorax says

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

  6. James Magee says

    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….


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