# How would you respond to the trolley problem?

The trolley problem is a thought experiment where you’re asked to either watch five people be killed or pull a lever so that only one person gets killed.

In this hypothetical scenario which choice would you make?

For those who would let the five people die by not pulling the lever to kill one person is there a minimum number of people on the track that would make you choose to kill the one person?

50? 100? 1,000? 10,000?

I view it as a choice between two actions:

If I perform Action A (standing and not moving my limbs), five people die.

If I perform Action B (pull a lever with a limb), four people are saved, and one dies.

I will perform Action B. I am not sure why this is debatable.

(I understand how Action A may be argued to not be an action. But for this problem I prefer to look at it as an action. “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” - Freewill by Rush. YMMV, of course.)

Well, doing something and failing to do something aren’t considered equal in the legal system(s).

I’d stand there thinking about how quaint it is that the town has a trolley system and wondering how strange it is that people are dying from trolleys. I’d use my phone to get pictures of the impact.

I’d pull the lever and cause the death of one instead of many. It would entail utter cowardice among a number of other negative traits to do otherwise.

Can I set the trolley on fire and kill even more people further down the track?

The actual trolley problem pretty much never comes up in real life. When it does, the right action is to figure out why you are running into this problem and fix it. Because in the moment, most of us would be paralyzed with shock, or not see both groups of people, or not understand how to use the lever, or…

My answer to the hypothetical trolley problem is typically to refuse to answer it.

The real problems that arise that this is mimicking are typically of the form:

This new medical treatment is so much more expensive that funding it means not funding food for children. Which should the government fund? Or cleaning the smokestacks of coal pretty plants will save a lot of lives in fewer lung diseases and cancer, but will make electricity enough more expensive that some people will die of heat exhaustion because they decided not to run the AC. How should we regulate the exhaust?

Or, one that we’ll likely be seeing in a couple of years

Self driving cars will reduce fatal accidents in the US by approximately N. But because they make different errors than human drivers, approximately M people will be killed by autos who would be okay if we don’t allow autonomous vehicles. At what ratio of N to M should we authorize autonomous vehicles on the roads? At what ratio should we require them?

The answer typically isn’t just M>N, because we currently accept those M deaths, and a new party will be liable for the N deaths, and juries will be appalled and treat that party somewhat punitively. And also, despite the bestest most informed projections, we won’t actually know what M and N are for sure until after we make the change.

But at some ratio, the moral urgency to reduce M-N overwhelms “friction”, and we’ll do it.

Well, for one thing because there are follow ups questions that tend to strain this reasoning.

e.g. You are on a bridge and watching a trolley car heading for 5 people. Next to you on the bridge is a fat man who is big enough to stop the trolley (but your body isn’t).
Do you throw the fat man off the bridge?

Very very few people answer “yes” to this. And yet, following the “Action A, Action B” logic, we would conclude that we should.

Another one is, what if the five people that will die if you do nothing are strangers, but the one person you will kill if you pull a lever is a loved one? Even if it were 50 people, or 5000 being saved, a lot of people would not be able to cause a loved one to be killed to save many strangers.

I’ll wait until the trolley is halfway past the switch, then pull the lever, thus causing the trolley to derail.

Pro tip: when you hear the voices in your head telling you to kill someone, because that is overwhelmingly in the public good, the best response is NOT to kill anyone, but to go home and have a little lie down. Typically, if you do kill someone in that situation, you find that the authorities do not give you a medal “for saving all those other people”, but just sling you in prison or an asylum.

In other words, the problem with the trolley problem is that in real life you will almost never be sure that you are facing the trolley problem.

You beat me to it. When teaching the trolley problem I’d always follow it up with the “Mr. Bravo” version of this, which was a mixed bag because some students loved the thought of pushing me off a bridge.

But as puzzlegal says, the trolley problem isn’t meant to be answerable, it’s an illustration of how having authority over life-altering decisions can be an incredibly shitty position to be in.

Declaring that one choice or the other is the only moral option shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the thought exercise.

Also, here’s my favorite version:

A recent episode of Inside No. 9 included this problem within its plot (well, sort of).

I would view the scenario as too unrealistic to be of much use to evaluating how actual humans behave, and express my belief that, if the problem must be discussed, it should be with sufficient detail to approximate a scenario that might plausibly arise—or better yet, has arisen—in the real world, otherwise it is an affront to human dignity.

Yes, or alternatively, if a fix isn’t possible in the short-term, the real-world factual circumstances and an understanding of how society will view the consequences tend to make it… I won’t say easier to make a decision, but less of an academic exercise, you might say. To the point where the answer is either very clear (eg: one option would be murder, the other not) or the situation is sufficiently complex and the options morally ambiguous enough that you would likely be held blameless (not just legally, but morally) whichever option you might go with and there would be little to be learned from a merely academic discussion of your choice.

I’d get that bear who’s more trustworthy than a man and let it figure out what to do.

I disagree. Philosophical problems are often quite contrived but it’s to make the actual point clearer. It’s the equivalent of a thought experiment in physics; where something is normally extended an absurd degree to illustrate a point.

It highlights that some dilemmas don’t have very clear morally right and wrong answers, even if most people would otherwise assume that is the case. I mean, most people accept that different cultures and through history society’s view on morality can change, but we would think that a person, a culture, has an unambiguous view. But it ain’t so: even religious people often struggle with the trolley problem.

I guess an alternative would be stealing bread to feed a starving person…
But the beauty of the trolley problem is that it is the same crime / choice whatever you pick: some person/people killed by a trolley car. So it’s an even clearer example of how the most moral option can be unclear.

Has ANYONE been placed into an analogous situation in, you know, real life? If this kind of thing never actually happens, then I don’t see the point of such an exercise.

I peruse the lesswrong site from time to time, mainly for yuks. They LOVE this sort of artificially contrived kind of thing, first cousin to all of the genie polls here (which, thankfully, have now suffered a well-deserved mocking backlash).

Hard disagree. Unless believing a particular answer to a physics thought experiment has the potential to re-write the laws of nature to make it actually true. If, for example, believing in a particular thought experiment involving dark matter required that gravity actually work the opposite of how it does, and the day most people in a society come to accept that particular view, the society and all the matter in it starts flying apart.

Moral thought experiments like the trolley problem have the potential to inform how we order society, and in turn bring about changes in society based on how they are discussed and how their solutions are accepted by members of society.

I think that any effort to discuss moral problems without respecting human dignity is liable to reshape (or rather, perpetuate) ours as a society that does not respect human dignity. Sees it as inconsequential or a non-factor, such that all that matters is mere number of humans, and certainly not our feelings or our agency.

Hear, hear!

This is the only correct response.

This is a scenario where doing “the right thing” is a lot harder, because it requires you to very directly kill someone, in this case an innocent person. But you are right, the logic is identical. If you can’t get over yourself in order to commit the heinous act of killing one person, you commit the heinous act of killing five.

Again - you’re increasing the personal cost of doing the right thing, but you aren’t changing what the morally righteous thing to do would be.and I’m not saying that I would have that moral strength either, mind you; but I’m not gonna pretend that it isn’t a moral failure on my part.

How about the dignity of the five humans who got crushed into a pulp because you were so worried about staining your hands with one guy’s blood?