Morality, Ethics, and Love

The Trolley Problem and Ethical Reasoning

I have been teaching the Trolley Problem in my ethics class this week.

The Trolley Problem is a classical ethical dilemma that people, especially philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson, have been writing and teaching about for decades.

Thompson wrote an initial article about the Trolley Problem in 1985 that you can read here: The Trolley Problem.

It became a famous problem in philosophy circles, and it inspired dozens of articles and dissertations.

Here is the original Trolley Problem:

There is a trolley car headed down some tracks. The track branches off into two very narrow mountain passages.

On the left side, five workmen work on the track. On the right side, one workman works on the track.

The mountain passages are so narrow that the workmen cannot get off the tracks to avoid the trolley.[1] 

The tracks were supposed to be clear.

And, of course, when the trolley driver sees the workmen on the tracks, he pumps his brakes to stop the trolley, but the breaks fail.

If the driver lets the trolley continue on its course, it will hit and kill the five workmen.

But he can flip a switch and make the trolley take the right track instead, hitting and killing just the one workman.

Is it morally permissible for the trolley driver to flip the switch so he hits and kills one workman instead of five?

Most people think it is.

The general idea here is that it is better to kill one than kill five.

Now consider a variant of the original Trolley Problem: The Bystander Variation.

In the Bystander Variation, the trolley driver faints at the steering wheel.

But someone happens along and sees what is about to happen with the trolley.

Can he, the bystander, flip the switch so the trolley goes to the right and hits the one instead of the five?

Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Most people think he can. Again the general idea here is that it is better to kill one than kill five.

This reasoning seems straightforward.

But now consider a similar scenario I will call the Transplant Problem.

A transplant surgeon has five patients who all are in the last stages of organ failure.

And it just so happens that they all need different organs.

The transplant surgeon is very skilled. Whatever organs he transplants always take.

The surgeon also has a very healthy patient he sees regularly.

So, the surgeon asks this patient if he can take his organs and donate them to his five patients.

Of course, this would kill the healthy patient. And the patient does not consent to his organs being taken.

Is it permissible for the transplant surgeon to take the healthy patient’s five organs without consent, killing him, to give to save his five patients?

Notice that both scenarios involve killing one to save five.

But most people believe that killing one to save five is permissible in the Trolley Problem but not the Transplant Problem.

Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What is the significant moral difference between the two?

This is a very important question.

On the one hand, many people agree with the general sentiment that it is better that one die instead of five, as the Trolley Problem seems to illustrate.

Nevertheless, it clearly cannot be the case that it is always better that one die instead of five.

Because if it was, it would be permissible for the surgeon in the Transplant Problem to kill the one to save the five, which it certainly is not.

And almost everyone recognizes this about Transplant.

At the very least, we don’t want someone to kill us, or our loved ones, so they can take our organs to save the five patients with organ failure.

In fact, we think it is horribly wrong for someone to do this to us or our loved ones.

Furthermore, we don’t even think that killing one person to save five is morally permissible in all situations pertaining to the Trolley Problem either.

Here’s an example.

Let’s change the Trolley Problem slightly.

Let’s say that, once again, a trolley is headed down some tracks, and the trolley driver faints.

Above the trolley tracks, there is a bridge. And on the bridge stand two people—a thin man and a very fat man.

The thin man sees the trolley driver faint. And he realizes that the train is going to hit some workmen up ahead.

He also realizes if he pushes the very fat man next to him off the bridge onto the trolley tracks, the body of the fat man will stop the trolley.

And this will prevent it from killing any workmen.

I will call this the Fat Man Variant. 

Is it morally permissible for the thin man to push the fat man onto the tracks to save the workmen? 

Very few, if any people, think pushing the Fat Man onto the tracks is morally permissible.

But this instance, too, is a scenario in which we would kill one person to save five lives.

So what is the difference between the Trolley and Transplant problem (or the Bystander and Fat Man Variant)?

That is, why is it okay for the bystander to kill one to save five in the Bystander Variant but killing one to save five is not permissible in the Fat Man Variant or Transplant?[2]

Why don’t you take a minute or so to think about it and then read on when you are ready to do so.

What Thompson Thinks

Thompson thinks there are two main differences. Examining the Trolley Problem again can help illuminate them.

Thompson thinks that when we examine the Trolley Problem, we notice two important things:

One: The bystander makes something that threatens everyone on the tracks (the trolley) threaten one person rather than five.

Two: The bystander makes something threaten the one (instead of the five) in a way that does not, in itself, violate the rights of the one.

That is, flipping the switch to make the track change does not, in itself, violate anyone’s rights.

On the other hand, Thompson argues when we examine the Transplant Problem, we notice a difference.

One: The same thing that threatens the five patients (organ failure) does not threaten the one patient.

The one patient is healthy and is only threatened by the doctor who wants to cut him up and take his organs for the five.

Two: Furthermore, the surgeon threatens the one patient in a way that strongly violates his rights.

Namely, the surgeon threatens to cut up the patient without his consent.

In discussing rights, Thompson notes that ethicists generally distinguish between positive and negative rights.

Positive rights are rights we might have to goods and services like money, help, and certain privileges.

Negative rights, on the other hand, are the right to be left alone, which entails (among other things) the right to preserve our body and life.

Ethicists generally argue that negative rights are stronger than positive rights.

One reason folks might argue this (and this is my argument) is that it seems that negative rights are more basic. That is, perhaps they are the foundation of positive rights.

For instance, all things being equal, the right to money, help, or privileges doesn’t mean a lot if you don’t have the right to preserve your body and life.

So, Thompson argues that while the bystander may throw the switch in the Bystander Variant, the surgeon may not operate in Transplant.

That’s because the surgeon in Transplant threatens the one patient in a way that he was not previously threatened before. 

Furthermore, the surgeon does so in a way that strongly violates his negative rights.

And by the way, Thompson thinks this reasoning also explains why we cannot push the fat man off the bridge to stop the trolley.

In doing so, we make something threaten him that did not previously do so. And we do so in a way that strongly violates his negative rights.

So, the Trolley Problem demonstrates that it is not always permissible in all cases to sacrifice one person to save the lives of five people.

Now, why does all this matter, you may ask.

Isn’t all this trolley nonsense unnecessary and overly-complicated?

 I don’t think so.

If you ask folks if it is okay to kill one person to save five people’s lives, many will say, “Of course.”

But the the Fat Man Variant and the Transplant Problem show this is not always the case.

That is, there are times when it certainly is not morally permissible to kill one to save the five.

The Trolley Problem shows us that good moral reasoning requires that we attend to more than just maximizing good consequences.

And it also shows us that we cannot always prioritize the needs of the many over the needs of the individual.

Sound moral reasoning requires that we must also attend to individual people, their rights, and our responsibility not to bring unnecessary threat to them.

Why are people’s individual rights so important?

One reason is that while human beings are different in many ways, there is one way we are similar: our human dignity.

Our human dignity is our ability to take responsibility for our life, make moral decisions, and to bring more goodness to the world.

We believe it is everyone’s responsibility to act morally.

But in order for people to act morally, we must honor their human dignity.

Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For instance, we cannot say to someone, “I can sacrifice your life at any time I choose to save other people’s lives”.

When we do this, we drastically decrease and even destroy people’s ability to act morally. We likely push them into fight or flight mode in which they live in a state of terror and aim merely to survive.

Not only that, we literally destroy people’s ability to act morally when we take their lives, especially when we do so arbitrarily.

 So, if expect people to act morally, this means we must act morally as well.

And the Trolley Problem teaches us that sound moral reasoning takes careful thought and analysis.

That’s an important lesson.

If we don’t attend to such lessons, we likely make overly-simplified moral judgments that contain significant flaws when we carry them to their logical conclusion.

Now, no one is required to be a professional ethicist or ethics professor.

We are required, however, to care about morality and to practice making careful moral decisions as best as we are able.

This post is for my friend, Mindy, who loves to think about moral problems and asked me good questions about the Trolley Problem.

You might also like this post which explores another famous thought experiment by Judith Jarvis Thompson called the World Famous Violinist: The Ethics of Abortion #2.


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[1] By the way, I have added a few creative details to the original problem to help it make sense.

[2] The reason Thompson focuses largely on the Bystander at the switch in the Trolley Problem is because it is more like the Surgeon in the Transplant Problem.

It is more so than is the Trolley Driver in the original Trolley Problem.

4 thoughts on “The Trolley Problem and Ethical Reasoning”

  1. I also have to consider whether or not I know anything about the endangered people. I wonder…what if one of the five endangered people is a prodigy of some kind, who would likely greatly contribute to the well being of humankind? What can be expected of them in terms of their past ethical (or not) behaviors? If I know nothing about any of the characters, then decision making would seem to be simplified, but SHOUOD it be? So many questions!

    1. Yes! A lot of people think it’s important, and understandably so, that we know more about the people involved. And on the one hand, it seems intuitively clear like prioritizing the life of someone like the prodigy is really important. However, making a decision based on someone’s perceived contribution to society can be problematic. We are often unable to predict accurately how someone’s life may impact society for good or ill. Of course, we can make some general predictions, but it is hard to predict precisely. For instance, consider a very bad person. What if there was a very bad person who, oddly enough, because of their very bad example drove people to better lives or to change society in some major positive way because they were so bad? In addition, if we save folks based on their perceived contribution to society, it seems like we are saying that some people are worth more than others.

  2. Thank you for this post, Shelly. My head is spinning, but in a good way. I really can’t understand how you philosophers sleep at night, so much to think about and never any easy answers! 🙂

    1. Friend, I really sympathize with your feelings, and they make me laugh a bit. That’s because this is how I feel as a philosopher almost all the time. My head is spinning but in a good way. Cheers!

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