The Trolley Problem is a popular philosophical tool for assessing a person’s basic ethical stance. It has a commonly used beginning and then a number of variations, I’m just going to discuss two versions of the trolley problem.
Scenario: “A trolley is barreling down a track towards 6 people. There is nothing you can do to stop it, and if it hits them they will all be killed. You are standing in front of a lever which will cause the trolley to change tracks. On the second track is one person, who would also be killed if the trolley hit them. Do you pull the lever or not? Which is the right choice?”
My response: Which is the right choice? I don’t know. Could I pull the lever? I don’t think I could. While standing and doing nothing is just as bad as doing something that causes a person’s death I feel that in my head the action of pulling the lever means that I would have played an active role in that one man’s death. I can justify not pulling the lever because I didn’t do anything. I was not responsible and had I not been present those people would have been killed anyway. I feel like it’s somewhat of a cowards choice, but that’s how I would feel. I cannot say that I know that one life is worth less than those six people’s lives.
Common response: Most people would say that they would pull the lever. It makes sense: one life versus six. It’s basic math. The guilt over potentially being responsible for 1 person’s death is outweighed by the fact that the 6 lives were saved.
Inconsistencies: What if that 1 person were your mother/spouse/child, would you behave differently? Or what if that 1 person were 70 years old and the six people were all 21, would that matter? If it would matter, why? And how would you explain your actions in each situation?
Scenario: “The same trolley is race down the track towards the six people. This time you are standing on a bridge that overlooks the tracks. There is no lever but you are standing next to a fat man who you know for certain will stop the trolley if you push him off the bridge and onto the tracks. If you push him he will die, but the trolley will stop and the six people will be saved. He does not know this is your plan, and has no desire to die. Do you push him? What’s the right thing to do?”
My response: I couldn’t push the man in front of the train. I have an even stronger reaction to this problem, and actively pushing an unwilling man to his death is not something I feel like I could do. Again, am I doing the right thing here? Who knows, but my answer to this question shows me that I am, at least, consistent in how I behave. In neither case would I be able to kill one person to save six.
Common response: The common response to this tends to be no, that they wouldn’t push the fat man in front of the train to save the six. Why the difference? Because there’s something inherently different about the action of standing back and pulling a lever versus actively pushing a person to their death. A lot of people feel about the separate themselves from pulling the lever and what it causes, but that isn’t possible when they’re the one pushing the man to his death.
Inconsistencies: The inconsistency here is obvious. In part 1, we would kill one person to save six but in part 2 we wouldn’t. Some people even go so far as to argue that saving the six people in part one is something that we should do: it is right, but killing the man in part two is morally wrong. Personally, when all is said and done I don’t see much of a moral (although I don’t like that word) difference between the two options.
Obviously, the most common response is not how everyone feels, and there are many ways people react to this problem. An interesting follow up here is the question of where to draw the line. I am not comfortable in either situation killing one man to save six (I’m not saying I think it’s wrong, I’m saying that I couldn’t bring myself to do it) but would I ever be comfortable with it? What if I had to kill one man to save the world (extreme example I know, but this is a thought experiment), or killing one man to save a hundred. When, if ever, would pushing the fat man off the bridge be okay?
Another interesting lesson we learn from this is how much easier we find it to be the cause of a person’s death if we are not actively killing them. In fact, some people are completely okay with it if they don’t have to see what they’ve caused. That’s just food for thought for now.