What’s Left To Learn About The Trolley Problem, Philosophy’s Most-Meme’d Dilemma

The trolley problem is one of the biggest philosophical memes in the book.

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I’m gonna throw you straight into a ridiculous scenario and ask you to roll with it, okay? Okay.

Imagine you’re hanging out near some train tracks. Maybe you’re into trains, I dunno — I’m not one to judge. But you’re at the train tracks, right at a spot where the track splits in two directions. There’s a lever right next to you that decides which way the trains will turn.

But these aren’t ordinary train tracks. They’re more like the train tracks you’d see in a spoof of a Western movie, because they’re covered in people who have been tied up and left on the tracks. On one track there are five poor souls tied up; on the other there’s just one person. Oh, and there’s a train hurtling down the tracks, about to careen into the five people stuck there.

Why are these people here? Because a philosopher wants to test your moral principles, that’s why!

See, you have a choice to make: you can let events play out — and the train will kill all five people on the track — or you can pull the lever next to you and redirect the train down the alternate path, where only one person will die. Choo choo motherfucker, here comes the ethics train.

Welcome to the trolley dilemma, first proposed by moral philosopher Phillipa Foot in the 1960s, every undergraduate philosophy student’s worst nightmare, not to mention a meme on the internet since time immemorial.

So, what do you do? Pull the lever, sparing five lives and killing one? Or do you stay out of it altogether, leaving the five to die?

The Trolley Problem: In Defence Of Doing Nothing

The argument in favour of doing nothing and letting the train nail the five people is pretty straightforward. If you pull the lever, you’re causing the death of the one person. Causing people to die seems like killing. And killing people is wrong. Ergo, we shouldn’t pull the lever.

But someone who wants to hold this view has to wrestle with two tricky philosophical problems. First, their argument relies on a sneaky hidden premise: that by not pulling the lever, you’re not killing the five people. And that’s a hard line to defend.

Imagine, Blade Runner-style, that you’re in the desert, and there’s a tortoise flipped over on its shell, baking in the sun. It’ll die if you don’t help it, but you’re not helping. Lots of us would be inclined to say that you were responsible for the killing the tortoise. Your decision not to help it was a death sentence.

Why should it be different for the five people on the tracks? They’ll die without your help — and you’re not helping.

In Defence Of Pulling The Lever

Let’s say you decide to pull the lever (according to research, most people do) and save the five people, letting the one person on the other track die. The case for doing this is obvious: five is a bigger number than one, so if you can keep five people alive by causing one person to die, it seems like the right thing to do.

The way to make this clear is to reverse the scenario. If the train was headed toward the one person and you pulled the lever and sent it toward the five people, that would make you a psychopath (or this kid, who solved the trolley dilemma in the most brutal way possible).

Based on this, it seems like it would be bad to cause more people die than necessary. Therefore, we should save the five lives, even if it means sadly killing the one. RIP to that lonely person!

But wait! Let’s test the principle that it’s wrong to cause more people to die than is necessary, by creating a new version of the trolley dilemma. This time, you’re still hanging out at train tracks (are we on the Island of Sodor? I don’t know. I’m sure Thomas has a bloodlust though so maybe).

But this time, there’s only one track and no lever. You’re standing on a bridge above the train track, watching on in horror about what’s about to occur. But you’re not alone. There’s someone else on the bridge with you – a huge unit. Let’s say they’re basically The Rock in terms of size. Just a large boy, hanging out watching some trains.

They’re so horrified at what’s about to happen that they’re leaning way out off the edge of the bridge, trying to yell for help. You do a quick calculation in your head and realise that this large boy is big enough to dislodge the train from the tracks (I cannot emphasise enough what a large lad this is). His centre of gravity is way off right now. You could give him a little nudge and send him in front of the train. He’d die, but in doing so would dislodge the train and thus save the five people up ahead.

Based on our principle, it would be totally fine to sacrifice our big lad to the train gods in order to save the five people on the tracks. Except it also seems like that’s definitely murder-y and wrong. So, now we’ve hit a snag. Our principle that it’s wrong to cause more lives to die than is necessary doesn’t seem to work in this scenario. Or does it?

The Ends Don’t Justify The Means

One way of explaining the difference is that in the bridge scenario, the actions are separated: first, you kill our huge unit, then the five people are saved. In the original dilemma, the same action – pulling the lever – kills one and saves others. The good and bad happen simultaneously.

It’s like if your mate has a mosquito on their leg. You swat the mozzie so they don’t get an itchy spot on their leg. Legend! Your friend’s leg might sting for a bit, but that’s an inescapable side-effect of doing something good.

Some people argue thinking about side-effects explains our different attitudes between the two cases. In the first case, our decision is to save lives and inescapably cause someone to die as a side-effect. Structurally, it’s the same as the benevolent mozzie slap.

By contrast, the bridge scenario is more like locking your mate inside the house come night-time to prevent mozzie bites. The goal is still a good one, but you’ve chosen to achieve that goal in an ethically dodgy way. Now, some people will still be cool with the more dubious approach of doing something bad to achieve something good. When I run this thought experiment, there are always a few die-hards who are pretty happy to send big units off bridges when it’s necessary.

Some of these people, whether aware of it or not, are committing to a pretty extreme form of utilitarianism – an ethical theory that argues that actions are made good or bad based on their results (rather than their intentions, virtuous quality or whether they are caring).

These kinds of people can be pretty suss on any absolute moral rules. Their take on whether something is right or wrong is pretty much always ‘it depends on the circumstances’, which is plausible on one level. But the idea that anything is justified if the stakes are high enough can also lead to defending some pretty dark stuff.

Maybe The Trolley Dilemma Is Stupid, And I’m Stupid For Liking It?

In the last few years, philosophers have become more critical of the trolley dilemma and the disproportionate influence it has on the way we think about ethics. That’s because it is designed to test only one central ethical principle.

When I’ve presented this thought experiment to students in the past, they immediately ask a bunch of questions: Who are these people? How did they get there? Are there other options we can try?

These are good questions. They’re crucial for good ethical decision-making in the real world, because it’s incredibly rare that reality is like a trolley dilemma.

However, these same questions are bad thought experiment questions because they take us away from the core principle we are trying to test. Lecturers like me are likely to tell students they’re trying to avoid making the difficult choice: that this is a test of principle.

Well, duh. Of course we want to avoid the choice! The choice sucks! At best, someone dies. Moving slowly toward accepting that reality is a good thing. It means we’re canvassing options, trying to be imaginative in finding solutions that sit outside the two obvious choices.

However, the real problem here isn’t with the trolley problem, it’s with our tendency (thanks, in part, to the fact articles like this use it to introduce philosophy and ethics to a large audience) to assume that all philosophical and ethical thinking looks like the trolley problem.

Basically, we misunderstand what the trolley problem is: a specific, weird, precise thought experiment to test a few very specific questions. For example, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, The Grattan Institute’s John Daley described COVID-19 as the “real life trolley problem”.

But there is no real life trolley problem — that’s the fun of it. It’s a set of absurd, impossible events concocted to make us feel uncomfortable with the apparent contradictions in our own thinking, and to figure out whether there’s a limit to what we’ll do to get the best outcome. Using it as a role model for all philosophical thinking is like using Nicholas Cage as a case study for the way all actors should perform. Like Cage, the trolley problem is great for specific roles, but has a weird energy that isn’t well-suited for lots of other situations.

But in the right role, they’re both perfectly suited for the job, and a lot of fun to watch.

Overthinking It is a new philosophy column on Junkee that aims to answer the big questions. For more Overthinking It, head here.

Matt Beard is a philosopher, ethicist, and fellow at The Ethics Centre.