The Trolley Problem

U.S. National Archives

Here is the problem, as presented by a famous philosopher: You live in a city which still has a streetcar (or trolley) system. So, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, or someplace like that, or someplace in Europe, or whatever. Or whatever.

On your way to work in the morning, you see that someone has tied five people to the trolley tracks. You are on your way to catch the trolley but you have not yet caught the trolley. So; five people, tied to one track. It is understood that these people are innocent, are blameless, are not being punished for anything, have merely been randomly tied to the streetcar tracks. So; that’s what’s happening on one section of the track. On a different section of the tracks, a single person has been tied to the rails. This person is likewise innocent, blameless, selected at random, etc.

As it so happens, you are standing right next to a switch. One of those heavy metal gearbox switches like in cartoons. You can flip this switch and change the course of the oncoming trolley. And the trolley is oncoming, by the way. You can see it approaching, can hear the heavy grind of the wheels against the rails. If you flip the switch, you will change the course of the trolley, so that it will take the path where it will only run over a single person. You do not have time to untie the people. The trolley is imminent; the heavy grind of the wheels against the tracks. You have thirty seconds to decide. Let it kill five people or have it kill one person?

What do you do?

Now, let’s change the situation slightly. We will keep the five people tied to the tracks. But now, changing things slightly, you are standing at the trolley stop. You have thirty seconds. The trolley is again bearing down. There is no switch to flip, but there is a fat man who is standing right next to you. If you push the fat man onto the tracks, he is big enough to stop the train and save the lives of the five people who are in the path of the streetcar. You yourself are not big enough to stop the train, so you can’t save the people by throwing yourself in front of the train.

Let’s go ahead and add that you have been actively annoyed by this fat man for the past ten minutes, while waiting for the trolley. He is the only other person with you at the trolley stop. He seems like a particularly annoying fat man; though it is hard to say for sure, you have not spoken to him or anything. Still, he annoys you. He is dressed badly. He is wearing headphones but has his iPod turned up so loudly that you can still hear every word of the rap song that he is listening to, and it is a rap song that you have always particularly hated, with particularly stupid and/or offensive lyrics. He is also rapping along with the song, out loud, at top volume, making it excruciating to stand at the trolley stop. He is also eating from an enormous bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, rustling the bag, licking his fingers grossly after each handful, to suck all of the Cool Ranch flavoring off of them, and then shoving another huge fistful of Doritos into his mouth.

You have thirty seconds. You can push the fat man in front of the trolley, saving the five people, or do nothing, and let the five people die. No one will see you push him, by the way; you will not get in any trouble for pushing him. Everyone will just assume that he stumbled. And the people in the trolley will not get hurt by the trolley being suddenly stopped in this way.

So: What do you do?

…Here’s where it gets interesting. Most people, almost without exception, say that they would flip the switch, killing one person instead of five. Most people also say that they would never ever push the fat man in front of the trolley.


In each case, the situation is the same. You are making a decision to kill one person in order to save five people. The greater good, etc. But something really really bothers people about pushing the fat man in front of the trolley, and here, I agree with most people — something about it really bothers me too.

Still, the choice is the same in both situations. The fat man doesn’t deserve to be pushed, true. (Even if he is annoying.) But then, the single person on the second track doesn’t deserve to be run over.

The externals seem to confuse us. Or maybe, we don’t like taking so much agency and responsibility for the death of the fat man.

There are many possible conclusions. Externals are confusing; that’s one. It’s better to be passive than active — that’s not a very good conclusion, though by not pushing the fat man, that’s what we’re doing; passively letting others die.

Murder is never justified; that’s another conclusion; though you are technically murdering one man if you chose to throw the switch. The ends never justify the means — though again, you’re responsible for a bad ending no matter what you do here, all you can do is lessen the number of people who get killed.

None of these conclusions are very good, and so some people say that there simply is no right answer. This sounds sort of wise; but is it? It is really? In a way, this is the most disturbing answer of all. There should be a right answer, don’t you think? Just throwing up our hands and walking away and letting the trolley take its course — that’s the equivalent of saying “Well; there’s no right answer, so it’s hopeless.” But that can’t be the right answer either, or is it, or is it? Hard to say, with so little time, and the wheels of the trolley bearing down on us all. TC mark


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