The Trolley Problem

This article has been written by Raina Mahapatra. Raina is currently pursuing her undergraduate course from Symbiosis Law School, Pune.

While reading an article last night, I came across a very specific concept that seemed particularly interesting. Let me guide you along my ‘train of thought’ that originated hence.

It’s a lovely day out, and you decide to go for a walk along the trolley tracks that crisscross your town. As you walk, you hear a trolley behind you, and you step away from the tracks. But as the trolley gets closer, you hear the sounds of panic – the five people on board are shouting for help. The trolley’s brakes have gone out, and it’s gathering speed.

You find that you just happen to be standing next to a side track that veers into a sand pit, potentially providing safety for the trolley’s five passengers. All you have to do is pull a hand lever to switch the tracks, and you’ll save the five people. Sounds easy, right? But there’s a problem. Along this offshoot of track leading to the sandpit stands a man who is totally unaware of the trolley’s problem and the action you’re considering. There’s no time to warn him. So by pulling the lever and guiding the trolley to safety, you’ll save the five passengers. But you’ll kill the man. What do you do?

Most people say they would pull the switch and kill 1 rather than 5. A conventional and widely-accepted answer.
But if the terms of the situation are slightly changed, people tend to give quite a different answer. Suppose that there is no switch, but that you are instead standing on a bridge over the railway track next to a very fat man, and you are sure that if you pushed him onto the track his bulk (but not yours) would be sufficient to stop the train before it hit the group of people. What do you think now? Should you kill the fat man?
Most people who said ‘yes’ to diverting the train say ‘no’ to pushing the fat man. But if you do, many moral philosophers would say you have made a mistake. Not because you are wrong about whether or not to kill people to save others, but because you are being inconsistent about your killing decisions.

But there’s a third version of the trolley problem where instead of pushing the fat man, by turning a switch he will fall through a trapdoor, stop the train and save the five people. When you ask people that, most people still say you shouldn’t kill the fat man. More people are willing to turn the switch than push the fat man, but not dramatically more.

Both of these grave dilemmas constitute the trolley problem, a moral paradox first posed by Phillipa Foot in her 1967 paper, “Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect,” and later expanded by Judith Jarvis Thomson. Far from solving the dilemma, the trolley problem launched a wave of further investigation into the philosophical quandary it raises. And it’s still being debated today, very popular with philosophers with a certain whimsical bent.

The trolley problem is a question of human morality, and an example of a philosophical view called consequentialism. This view says that morality is defined by the consequences of an action, and that the consequences are all that matter. But exactly which consequences are allowable?

Take the two examples that make up the trolley problem. On the surface, the consequences of both actions are the same: one person dies, five survive. More specifically, in both examples five people live as the result of one person’s death. At first, both may seem to be justified, but most people, when asked which of the two actions is permissible – pulling the lever or pushing the man onto the tracks -say that the former is permissible, the latter is forbidden. It reveals a distinction between killing a person and letting a person die.

Why is one wrong and another possibly allowable when both result in death? It’s a question of human morality. If a person dies in both scenarios, and both deaths directly result from an action you take, what’s the distinction between the two? Aside from that highly improbable moment when you actually find yourself near a big man and a runaway trolley, the trolley problem seems far-fetched. But philosophical questions like this have real-world implications for how people behave in society, governments, science, law and even war.

The trolley problem is based on an old philosophical standard called the Doctrine of Double Effect. This doctrine says that if doing something morally good has a morally bad side-effect it’s ethically acceptable to do it provided the bad side-effect wasn’t intended. This is true even if you foresaw that the bad effect would probably happen.

The point of the trolley problem is to figure out what principle distinguishes those two variations – and, more importantly, what that tells us about real life cases. Can we apply that distinction to war, to medical ethics, to abortion? Originally the trolley problem was devised to explain the rights and wrongs of abortion. Today, it is often used in just war theory, the distinction between targeting a military installation knowing that civilians will be killed as bystanders, and directly intending the death of civilians.

Applied ethics is the application of moral theory to the real world.

Imagine applying our trolley logic to the case of the death penalty. Imagine further that a new study showed that, without question, the death penalty really does cut down the number of murders committed in any given year. Surely, under such (admittedly hypothetical) circumstances, the lever diverting the trolley would be rapidly replaced by the lever operating the executioner’s trapdoor. In fact, the replacement is made easier when we consider that the ‘sacrificed’ individual is likely to be a cold-blooded murderer. The wrinkle here is the word ‘likely’, because, from a purely utilitarian perspective, the occasional execution of an innocent makes no difference to the morality of the death penalty – the net benefit justifies the sacrifice.

Thus, on sole application of the findings of the Trolley problem on the much debated issue of death penalty’s validity, there arise two different sets of arguments.

Similar to the answer which involves saying yes to the train’s diversion but no to the deliberate pushing, the first argument against death penalty distinguishes between ‘killing a person’ and ‘letting a person die’. Hence, the preference for life imprisonment over death penalty. The second school of argument is based on utilitarianism or the principle of ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ as proposed by Jeremy Bentham and thus the methodology doesn’t really create that much of a hindrance since the outcome remains the same.

While the debate over validity and constitutionality of the death penalty remains ever-present, maybe a fresh perspective will help sort out the dilemma. Thus, the trolley problem. A new methodology of argument, perhaps.



The December book bucket

court-room-genius                    Learning the law.jpg                     legal-eagles

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