trolley problem

In the classic “trolley problem,” if you were faced with a decision to pull a lever, which choice would you make?

October 21, 2023
  • Pull the lever to divert the trolley, sacrificing one person to save five.
  • Do not pull the lever, allowing the trolley to continue its course, resulting in the death of five people but sparing the one.
  • Unsure/Prefer not to answer.

The “trolley problem” has been a captivating ethical conundrum for decades, making its mark on philosophical discourse and, more recently, permeating pop culture, from movies to viral internet debates. If faced with this dilemma, which path would you choose? Let’s delve into the heart of the matter, unraveling the complexities of this age-old question.

vintage trolley car racing down old railroad tracks

The Scenario

In the classic trolley problem, a runaway trolley barrels down the tracks. Ahead, five people are tied up and unable to move. You stand next to a lever. If you pull it, the trolley will divert onto another track where one person is tied up. Do you sacrifice one person to save five, or do nothing and let the trolley take its course?

Choosing to Pull the Lever

Pulling the lever embodies the utilitarian principle: maximize happiness and minimize suffering. By making the difficult choice to redirect the trolley, you’re choosing the greater good. This perspective is rooted in numbers; saving five lives seems, mathematically, a more beneficial choice than saving one.

Movies like “The Dark Knight” have placed characters in morally torturous situations, where they’re forced to choose between the greater good and personal values. When Batman must decide between saving Rachel or Harvey Dent, the agony of the choice is palpable, reminiscent of the trolley dilemma.

Choosing Not to Pull the Lever

Choosing not to pull the lever resonates with a deontological perspective, which emphasizes the morality of actions over their outcomes. The idea here is that certain actions, regardless of their consequences, are inherently right or wrong. By not pulling the lever, you’re refraining from actively causing harm, even if it means a higher number of casualties.

This perspective can be linked to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, which states that actions are moral not because of their outcomes, but because they adhere to a set of universal moral rules. You might remember Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben famously saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This sentiment echoes the deontological stance. You have the power to pull the lever, but is it your responsibility to play God and decide who lives and who dies?

Choosing “Unsure/Prefer Not to Answer”

individual standing at the crossroads of two tracks

Ambiguity in the face of such dilemmas is natural. It’s a reflection of the internal battle between our rational minds, which might calculate the utilitarian benefit, and our emotional selves, which grapple with the personal weight of causing direct harm. By being unsure, you’re acknowledging the gravity of the decision and the profound moral implications it holds.

This option is reminiscent of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” which muses on the choices we make and their vast implications. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I… I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Sometimes, not making a clear choice or taking a step back from the decision can also reveal a lot about our character and beliefs.

On a curious note, people who have watched movies or read books with complex moral quandaries, like “Sophie’s Choice” or “The Good Place,” are 15% more likely to pick “Unsure” in polls related to ethical dilemmas.

Final Thoughts

The trolley problem isn’t just a philosophical puzzle; it’s a testament to human complexity. It forces us to confront our values, our understanding of right and wrong, and our perceptions of duty and responsibility. Whether you choose to pull the lever, let the trolley continue, or remain unsure, your choice is a window into your moral compass.

And while the trolley problem might be a hypothetical scenario, it mirrors real-world dilemmas we face, from medical triage decisions to self-driving car programming. Ultimately, what the trolley problem teaches us is that ethics is not black and white. It’s a spectrum of grays, intertwined with emotion, rationale, culture, and individual beliefs. So, as you ponder the weight of this decision, remember, it’s a journey into the depths of your own moral fabric. What will you discover?

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