Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Trolley Dilemma-- My View


Here's the situation, you are on a nature trail walking next a trolley track minding you own business. Out of what seems nowhere, you see the local dastardly villain running off and disappearing into the nearby woods. You hear the villain laughing and see him twirling his heavily waxed mustache as he runs off and instantly know he was up to his usual evil schemes.

So you run ahead to find five people tied to the main trolley track and one person tied to a secondary track that branched off a little further down and then runs parallel to it. All six of these people are tied down to the tracks with strong chains and heavy padlocks. Alone and without any tools, you simply have no way to set them free.

Things immediately get worse when you see a speeding, unmanned trolley heading down the tracks about a minute away from running over the five individuals tied down on the main track. There is simply no way around it, five people will die horrible deaths when the trolley runs over them.

But wait, there is a lever where the secondary track branches off that would send the trolley down that alternate track. You can save the five people tied together but condemn the one person on the secondary track to death.

Feeling the weight of the decision you have to make bearing down on your shoulders you run up to the lever. Do you save five people by sending the trolley down the secondary track but assure the death of one innocent victim? Are do you let the trolley continue and have it kill the five allowing the lone person on the other track to live?

Which is the more ethical choice?

This moral philosophy problem was reintroduced to me recently by one of the podcasts I listen to while on the way to work and going home from. Even though it is an unrealistic problem I, of course, was drawn back into the workings of this dilemma.

Just from the information I've given of six random individuals tied down to trolley tracks my instincts tell me to throw the lever and save the five at the expense of the one. On the outset that makes my moral philosophy Utilitarian in nature in that I want to maximize happiness and well-being for the most people. So in this case I'm a hero to the five people tied together because I condemned one innocent person to death.

It's insanely easy even for me to see how this way of thinking could lead to monstrous crimes against humanity if taken to an extreme level. For example let's say cops in a city start playing a kinder, gentler versions of Gestapo tactics in a black neighborhood to prevent the people living there from going into a nearby white subdivision.

I have no doubt that many of the white subdivision residents could happily justify such actions because it would, in their minds, lessen the crime rate. To hell with the ideas of being a free country of individual rights and human dignity, the average paranoid white resident would think. He doesn't want any strange looking, undesirable types walking through his subdivision. He and his neighbors have families and property values to protect.

Getting back to the Trolley Dilemma, I can see, but not agree, with the viewpoint that making any life or death decision on the part of the people tied to the tracks makes the person at the lever morally culpable. The person at the lever has been forced into a nightmare scenario where there is no real moral choice. Given the situation, someone will die it's just the degree of death that's in question. No, the person at the lever would not save anyone by throwing themselves on the track ahead of the unmanned trolley.

From what little research I've done, the variations on the Trolley Dilemma run straight into the absurd. A good number revolve around the group of five being strangers while the person tied to the secondary track being the free individual's child or spouse.

You might be surprised to know one of my biggest issues with the Trolley Dilemma is that our society makes similar decisions constantly. Oh, we cover them up in deep, detached layers of responsibility but we're always making decisions that affect the lives of others.

The easiest one off the top of my head is how Americans love bargains. We flock in mass to places like Walmart because of the low prices allowing the customer to save money. The connection to the Trolley Dilemma is that Walmart and others buys most of their products overseas. This practice destroyed millions of manufacturing jobs in America degrading the living standards of the workers. Walmart loving Joe and and Janet Blow may have a great large screen television for an insanely cheap price. But the factory where their parents may have worked building Magnavox televisions decades ago is now a decaying, empty ruin.

So whats my answer to the Trolley Dilemma? For the five people tied to the track, I'd have to save them at the expense of the one. But for the other, more abstract versions that occur, I don't have a clue.


The Bug said...

Your Walmart example hits a little too close to home. I'm trying to not use Amazon if I can help it, and yet just today had to order something that I couldn't find anywhere else. Ugh. How many people does THAT trolley kill? Sigh.

Marja said...

Yes a difficult dilemma and with the choice of 5 or 1 5 seems indeed the better choice.
Happy I don't have to make it. The walmart issue I don't know how it is in the USA but in my home country many products are made in the east as production is cheaper and not much industry is left. It is actually quite complicated. I think the Western world has done more harm to third world countries then the other way around but that's a long story

SpacerGuy said...

Its kruddy ignoring folks but heck condemning them blimey I'm with you dude although I'd probably freeze up, I just don't think I could make the decision dude.

Ranch Chimp said...

... ain't that the truth, as far as how we do things in our society ....

Jeff said...

What would Mr. Roger's do? :)

It's a good thing there are so few trolleys left... But the delimia goes deeper, doesn't it.

The Armchair Squid said...


And in the real world, it's always a lot more complicated. Often, at risk for the one is life, liberty and dignity whereas the many risk mere inconvenience or discomfort. As you point out, we make such choices in our buying decisions every day. Vegans would argue we ask the same sacrifice of the animals we eat.