My thoughts on the Trolley Problem and Utilitarianism

What is the trolley problem?

The trolley problem is a thought experiment in which a runaway trolley is travelling towards a group of five people who are unable to move from the track. On an adjacent track there is another person who is in the same situation and cannot get off the track.

You are in control of a switch that will change the track that the trolley is on. If you do nothing the trolley will strike and kill the five people on the track. If you press the switch the track will connect to the adjacent track and one person will die in the place of five.

The trolley problem puts you in charge of a situation where there are only two possibilities. Most people would agree that it is morally justifiable to press the switch to save the lives of five people versus the one. This is linked to utilitarianism where the actions creating the best possible outcome for the most people is accepted.

However, when you look at a variation of the trolley problem where this time instead of a switch you have the person that you sacrifice in the first example right in front of you on a bridge above the track. This person has enough body mass to stop the trolley and if you push them off the bridge they will land on the track below killing them instantly when the trolley collides with them; although the lives of the five people are saved. If you do not push them then five people will die.

Even though the overall outcome in the second scenario is the same as the first (sacrificing one to save five) the addition of the direct human interaction in place of the switch makes it more difficult for people to make the same sacrifice. This is why many find the trolley problem so fascinating.

When was the trolley problem invented?

The trolley problem was invented in 1967 by the British philosopher Philippa Foot. It’s aim was to raise questions surrounding morality, such as sacrificing one person to steer a runaway trolley to save five while being impermissible to say kill a person to give five people their organs who would otherwise die.

Why is the trolley problem important?

The trolley problem is important as it allows philosophers to explore the moral intuitions of our societies. With the problem above were we have to choice to push the person from the bridge to stop the trolley. Majority of people would not push the person but when you introduce a trap door that will drop the person onto the track to get hit by the trolley to save the five people, a lot more people are willing to do this.

Do our moral intuitions make sense? Are they important?

These are the questions that philosophers are trying to answer when looking at the trolley problem.

What is utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that promotes Spock’s famous phrase ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’. Basically the idea that the best ethical decisions are the ones that results in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people.

So in the trolley problem a utilitarian would look at the overall outcome of each variation and not see any difference, as one life is being sacrificed to save five in every case.

Why is the trolley problem a criticism of utilitarianism?

As utilitarianism reduces the trolley problem into a mathematical equation, can it really be used in the real world?

If utilitarianism only takes into account the sum total of happiness of party A against party B, the how would it act in the extreme case of slavery? Slavery could bring more happiness to a greater number of people than those enslaved. This is an example used by people against the utilitarian view to highlight its flaws as there is no question that slavery is morally wrong.

Donating your money and organs to a perfect stranger all in the name of the greater good? This seems a bit too extreme to most people and I would have to agree.

Do people not already identify within humanity as a whole? If people do not already act for the greater good why then do people donate to charity; help children in need; prevent animal suffering. These things do not put you or your family first over the idea of the greater good.

In the trolley problem if we replaced the one person with your child against the lives of five other children, how would you then act? In this case majority would save their own child (most likely based on our genes) than act in a utilitarian way and save the five other children. Utilitarianism removes a lot of factors like whether the person is good, bad or whether we known them…

What the trolley problem says about you?

In the trolley problem if you push the switch to save the five people you would be considered to most likely be using the utilitarian view.

If not and you choose to allow the five to die you could be using the deontological moral view; where following the rules is more important than the outcome; and killing is never an acceptable act. It would be immoral to push the switch to kill one person event if it meant the death of a thousand people.

Of course this is all rather complicated (especially when looking at different variants of the trolley problem) and no right or wrong answer exists in terms of morality.

Trolley problem and self driving cars

This so far is all hypothetical, as in the real world one would expect people to attempt to call out and warn the people on the track of their impending doom… but what about now with our advancements in technology. We have companies who are building driverless cars for the public which are programmed. If one of these cars is about to crash and its only options is to run through a group of five people vs one person.

Why stop there? What if the program had to choose between an elderly person versus a toddler. That one might sound easy though what if I keep increasing the amount of elderly people to the one toddler. How many people would it take to make that an impossible decision.

How do programmers making the brain of the self driving car quantify a human life?

Trolley problem and the law

Though this is all hypothetical if you ever do find yourself in this impossible situation, what would happen to you in the eyes of the law depending on your choice?

Doing nothing and not pressing the switch (especially in the variant were the switch is removed and we have a choice to push the person from the bridge directly…) is the safest option. You do not have a legal requirement to act.

However if you do press the switch then you will most likely be faced with murder or manslaughter charges. There may be some defence in that you took the only action available to prevent the greater harm.

The law may state one thing, though this is impossible to align in every possibility with over moral ethics. The law also varies from country to country, state to state. In most cases necessity isn’t a defence to murder so a utilitarian explanation would not be acceptable in the eyes of the law.

Trolley problem in movies

For a funny view of the trolley problem, you can take a look at ‘The Good Place’ scene on youtube here.

In ‘Marvel’s Avengers Endgame’ the whole plot could be compared to the trolley problem. Thanos is trying to assemble all the infinity stones to get rid of half of all life in the universe. He is doing this as there is only a finite number of resources in the universe and he has already witnessed the devastation this causes on his homeworld. This is his equivalent to one person on the track in the trolley problem. The equivalent five people are the future generations that will be saved.

So maybe Thanos was the good guy after all as his actions were ultimately based on the greater good…

In DC’s Batman, if Batman took the utilitarian view he should have killed the Joker the first time they met, thus saving countless lives of all the people that the Joker would have murdered. Instead Batman has a different moral approach and chooses to let the Joker live.

Seems even super heroes struggle with the trolley problem!

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