The Trolley Problem Solved

Trolley problem 1

Philippa Foot invented the scenario described as the trolley problem. In it there is a runaway trolley that will kill five innocent people. You, a bystander, have the ability to divert the trolley so that just one innocent person is killed instead.

In another version of the problem there is a fat man looking at a runaway trolley from a bridge. If you push him off the bridge he will get wedged under the wheels and bring the trolley to a halt, saving the five people.

Some philosophers delight in the moral confusion generated by the different moral intuitions people exhibit concerning the two cases. People often countenance the lever-pulling but demur from the rightness of pushing the fat man. It is commonly pointed out that the two cases are functionally the same, but that pushing the fat man is more visceral and less abstract, leading to the different moral choices.

The answer should be easy. Do not pull the lever and do not push the fat man. Murdering innocent people is wrong and committing immoral actions cannot be justified by being useful.

If the trolley problem scenario is changed to one where terrorists have five hostages, then the moral truth may be more apparent. The terrorists appear on Youtube or television and say that if Richard Cocks kills one of his sisters, the five hostages will be spared. If Richard Cocks complied, the ironic situation would be that Richard Cocks would be a murderer and the terrorists would not.

It is not morally permissible to kill innocent people no matter how handy it might be to get rid of someone. The trolley problem is trying to get people to engage in sacrificial conduct. Again, imagine the terrorist situation just described except this time the terrorists say that if Richard Cocks does not commit suicide, the five hostages will be killed. Am I morally obliged to kill myself? No.

Interestingly, in another scenario associated with utilitarianism, a doctor can save five people if he kills an innocent person who happens to be a perfect organ donor for the five others – all of whom are terminally ill but can be saved by a transplant. Each ill patient would receive a different organ from the healthy, innocent victim. The moral situation is exactly the same as the trolley problem, but in the doctor and patient scenario most people think it perfectly clear that murdering the innocent person is wrong.

Murdering the innocent victim and siding with the mob (the many) is to scapegoat. Killing innocent victims is frequently useful. It bonds people together in mutual hatred against the victim, temporarily halting any animosity that may have occurred within the mob. In scapegoating as described by René Girard, the victim is always innocent. He is always innocent of what he is accused, namely entirely destroying the social fabric and single-handedly inducing neighbor to murder neighbor. Mimetic desire leads to conflict and in situations of chaos induced, for instance, by war, famine, plague, drought and flood, the normal taboos, prohibitions, and laws are not sufficient to suppress the violence inherent in rivalrous relationships.

To kill the innocent victim is to sacrifice the scapegoat – the age-old method of solving human conflict. The victim cannot complain because he is dead, so the community never has to face the reality of what they have done. His friends and relatives, if he has any, will remain silent too because they will fear being killed too and/or, because of mimesis, they may come to share the opinion of the mob that the victim deserved it. Even the victim can come to believe that he deserves to die. If enough people tell someone how rotten he is, he may come to accept it. Our self-image is largely the product of how other people respond to us, after all.

Some of the moral confusion over the trolley problem may be generated by the moral theory of utilitarianism. By stating that we should choose the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, utilitarianism sides with the mob against the victim. Even when utilitarians decide to spare the victim it is because killing the victim would not benefit the mob because, for instance, it would make people afraid of going to the doctor thereby harming people’s health. That is the wrong answer and utilitarianism is actually conceptually incapable of recognizing that murdering innocent victims is morally wrong. People completely unversed in the theory immediately recognize the sacrificial implications – utilitarianism just being scapegoating given a formal description and sold as promoting happiness.

However, some students who are unaware of utilitarianism, still think pulling the lever might be right. In one case, this was because the bystander was imagined to be someone who was standing idly by while witnessing an immoral event – as though letting the five people die in the trolley problem scenario were similar to not intervening when they were being beaten by an angry mob.

Not to murder an innocent person is not the same as callousness. Quite the reverse.

A willingness to pull the lever is just a sign that sacrificial behavior – scapegoating – lies close to the surface for humanity. Utilitarianism is evil, not because it introduces scapegoating for the first time, but because it countenances scapegoating and encourages it under the guise of a supposedly rational “moral” theory.

36 thoughts on “The Trolley Problem Solved

  1. A nice takedown of a false dilemma. As you say, a tacit utilitarianism is partly to blame. There is also an assumption that one always has a moral obligation to prevent evil, even when the evil is none of one’s doing and has arisen in the context of a greater evil. This is what I was trying to get at in my recent post, “What to do when there is perfection in collapse.” My answer, like yours, is nothing at all. As you say, this is not callousness. But it is free of the sentimentality that passes for morals nowadays.

  2. Isn’t sacrificial behavior the basis of Christianity? And the blog is headlined with a quote from de Maistre about altars, what do you think altars are for?

    “The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar upon which all that is living must be sacrificed without end, without measure, without pause, until the consummation of things, until evil is extinct, until the death of death.” – also de Maistre

    I actually agree with you on the worth of trolly problems and utilitarianism, although for different reasons.

    • The Actus Tragicus of Christianity is not the affirmation but the revelation of sacrifice, so that the persecution of victims might cease at last to be the founding principle of kingdoms and principalities. Life without victims is to this day a frightening prospect for most people, especially liberals and self-designating postmoderns. Christ’s “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” should be taken quite literally, but only as it applies to human existence up until the moment of Savior’s crucifixion, that threshold event after which sacrifice is no less inexcusable than murder. De Maistre understood this principle, as did his successor Baudelaire, as did his successor Rene Girard, but no modern person does. It is easy to pull a tagline from Wikiquote, but it is difficult to read The Saint Petersburg Evenings.

    • @ a.morphous – I’m with Tom. The English word “sacrifice” combines two opposite meanings – to murder someone, thyia and to renounce or give something up, askesis. The Orthosphere is dedicated to celebrating voluntary renunciation, among other things, but not immolation.

  3. Pingback: The Trolley Problem Solved | @the_arv

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    • Yeah, that’s what makes the trolley problem so devilish difficult. The fact that one is *able* to choose between the deaths of either one or of five means that one is *responsible* for the deaths ensuing upon one’s decision. To spare one life *just is* to destroy five others. The trolley decision is the triage that happens in hospital emergency rooms every day. It is a decision to kill, one way or the other, with no way out but death.

      This conundrum is inescapable, and pervasive. It is present in all our decisions, which are, all, choices among mutually exclusive goods. To choose x *just is* to destroy the chances of every ¬x, and to prevent the realization and enjoyment of all their beauties, and of all the beauties they might have engendered. So life is inherently, thoroughly tragic.

      That the Trolley Problem is called a Problem is however – therefore – problematic. Decisions such as that about the trolley are just the way life works, the way it proceeds – the way it is lively.

      The reason that we apprehend the Trolley Problem as a problem is that we view the death or destruction of every creature as a permanent and irreparable loss. If there is no God, then this is so. If there is a God, it is not. If there is a God, then not every death or destruction is either permanent or irreparable.

      In Heaven, there is no permanent loss. We’ll be able to go out onto the field and fight to the death every day (if that’s the sort of thing we enjoy), and every evening the dead will get up and join the living for a great feast of rejoicing and merriment.

      None of this solves the Trolley Problem here below. The only solution would be to obtain the one man’s consent to give his life for the sake of the other five. It is for this reason that the ancients always sought a sign of the consent of the sacrificial victim – man or beast – to his fate, prior to his holocaust. To kill the victim against his will, as in scapegoating, is mere murder. To consent to death, on the other hand, is to sacrifice: literally, to make holy. It is in sacrifice that Christ calls all men to join with him.

    • @ Kristor and cyborg_nomade

      Kant’s deontology, at least, forbids murder. Useful killing is permitted in utilitarianism, but not in duty theory. If the alternative to letting someone die is to kill someone else, then, no, you are not allowed to do it.

      I suspect that JMSmith might be right that any moral requirement not to let anyone die is non-existent. At the very least it would seem to be very limited. If duty theory forbids letting anyone die then that would seem to imply that every cent a person earns that is not necessary for one’s own bare survival should be given to the starving – except, if you want to see the negative effects of foreign aid just watch Poverty, Inc. Or should doctors keep resuscitating the elderly trying to die a natural death, or forcibly operating on them against their wishes no matter what kind of quality of life the person is now going to have to wake up to?

      If fate, so to speak, has chosen five people to die, you are not responsible for their deaths. When we are responsible for deaths this is either through murder, self-defense or criminal negligence. The trolley problem agent is guilty of none of these. If your intervention means an innocent bystander is sacrificed – that is effectively a lynching and immolation and that is murder. I would not want to try to talk him into it either. If the agent felt like sacrificing himself, that would be fine. That would be altruism. It is not altruism to convince someone else to die in someone else’s place.

      In hospital triage, doctors are not murdering anyone, but they may have to choose who not to save. Looking for signs that the sacrificial victim consents in Kristor’s account is pretty scary sounding. I’m pretty sure just a certain look in his eyes would suffice.

      Imagine trying to explain to some random person why you are going to kill him and how happy everyone will feel when you do. And then trying to explain to his grieving parents and wife and children why you thought it necessary to murder him – he, who was not in harm’s way until you intervened.

      • @ cyborg_nomade: Criminal negligence amounts to fairly directly causing someone’s death. You have created the conditions resulting in a fatality and it is definitely your fault. It is not quite murder since the intent is missing, but you are still morally responsible. “Letting die” seems to describe a situation where someone has no role in causing the death; he just didn’t stop it. Criminal negligence could be better described as “making die.”

        One term philosophers sometimes use is “supererogatory” to describe going beyond one’s moral duty. If, for instance, someone feels like adopting a child from some forlorn situation, then that is commendable, but we do not have a duty to do so.

  5. Pulling the lever may seem enticing but a) it is no different from pushing the fat man b) or from killing an innocent person to donate his organs. The immorality is clear in both cases. Maybe we should just ban levers – they seem to make us want to kill people. 🙂

    • Yes. The Trolley Problem is different from the prospect of triage confronting an attending surgeon in an emergency room. For one thing, the emergency room is real, whereas the Trolley Problem is unreal. The physician has taken an oath to do no harm, but the likely subject of the Trolley Problem is a poorly educated undergraduate, intimidated by his instructor, whose main goal is to earn the highest possible grade, in part by pleasing the one who will evaluate him at the end of the semester. When the physician makes his first choice of whom to treat among his (say) five cases, he does not relinquish his hope of saving the fifth: He will try to save all five, if he can, and despite his ranked assessments. In the Trolley Problem, however, the philosophy instructor invites the naïve student consciously to embrace the idea, so quaintly formulated by the High Priest, that it is better that one man should die than that the whole community should perish. And that is exactly scapegoating, lynching, murder. The Trolley Problem is therefore manipulative; it aims at indoctrination, at making the sacrifice seem easy because, in the thought-experiment, rather than in the emergency room, the act has no consequences. The Trolley Problem is an insidious de-humanizing tool of postmodern moral deconstruction.

      • @ Tom: I agree with that assessment. The instructor probably has little idea what he is doing, unlike his SJW peers in other departments. It’s insidious. Similar effects are achieved by presenting a supermarket of ideas such as various moral theories, each one neutrally described, leaving the poor undergraduate no means to choose between them and leaving him think it all much of a muchness – so who gives a damn? Hence the need for books like “Ideas Have Consequences.”

  6. Jesus solved the Trolley Problem this way: He threw himself in front of the trolley before it reached the junction, but that is not an option for the brave egos of the left.

    • Supererogatory to the max! Go, Jesus! Yes. For the left, the Trolley Problem is an enticement to scapegoat only – a big lollipop with a bow on.

      • PC PROFESSOR (smugly): Tell me how you would solve the Trolley problem.

        ACTUALLY THOUGHTFUL STUDENT: My dear professor, I would throw you in front of the trolley before it reached the junction.

    • @ Tom: Brilliant! Exactly! The consent of Jesus at Gethsemane was the maximum of assent, perfected. So complete and so powerful was it, that it took all creation with it in train, consecrated and sanctified it.

      • Thank you, Kristor. Rather than attempting to deconstruct the (vestigial) morality of intellectually vulnerable college students by dragging them through the moral-epistemological humiliation of the Trolley Problem, the philosophy professors should collate, let us say, a dozen accounts of soldiers at war who fell on a grenade, or who did something equivalently ultimate, in order to save their comrades; and then they should investigate the backgrounds — the childhoods, upbringings, and educations — of those men. A morally useful booklet might be assembled on such a basis. Students in the philosophy classroom should then study that book. As we discuss this issue, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that the Trolley Problem is an emblem of our cultural condition. It is, firstly, stupid, and secondly stupefying. It is a scheme abstracted from the richness — and, more importantly, from the inescapable shame — of life. As the brilliant education professor and critic of modern American education, Rita Kramer, once said to me, “Adults think in words, sentences, and paragraphs; they don’t need infantile pictures.” What is a problem, incidentally? It is a pro-blema: A cause that comes before a wound (blema) and guarantees its misery in advance. The Trolley Problem is, itself, a problem — because it inflicts a wound — and so is everything like it.

        And then there is this: I like trolleys and hate to see them abused!

  7. The Twilight Zone had an episode called The Box where if a button was pushed, which did not appear to be connected to anything, a man, effectively the devil, would turn up with a suitcase filled with money. The only catch – someone the pusher did not know would die immediately upon the button being pushed. After three sleepless nights and a lot of sweating, the couple decide to push the button. After instantly receiving their reward, the couple inquired again about the person killed. Answer: Oh, that was the last person who pushed the button.

    Those voting for immolation, if their immediate lynching is not possible, should be next in line.

      • @ Tom, regarding your proposed collation of admirable people and their backgrounds, there is a book by Siegfried Lenz called “An Exemplary Life.” In it a committee is formed to create a textbook of stories of admirable people and their actions, for the benefit of high school students. The committee members find each other’s choices baffling; the moral of the other members’ stories escaping them. As a teenager I found it fascinating and remembered it for decades. I tried rereading it a few years ago and unfortunately it now seemed dated and even the content jejune. I wish someone would rewrite it as a good book.

        I would enjoy reading an actual book of exemplary lives. The single life of Socrates, as depicted by Plato, usually has to suffice for my classes.

    • I find thinking about the chain of causation amusing.

      The button-press kills the last person to press the button. There must ultimately have been a first person to press the button. So what happens when he presses the button?

      The boring answer is that it killed some ‘random’ person that the machine decided upon in a different way than it did for subsequent buttoneers. And yes, this works.

      However, assume the machine stays consistent. When a man presses the button, the essence of that action is to kill the last man who pressed the button. In the case of the first man, he presses the button – and nothing happens, for no such being as ‘the last man to press the button’ exists.

      Instead, he is tempted to press the button with this bargain: “If you press this button, you will receive a suitcase of money, but then I will send the box to someone else. If he presses the button, he will receive a suitcase of money, and you will die.”

      For the first man, it becomes a consideration of social trust. Prudence may or may not dictate against it (for remember, the Twilight Zone was a harbinger and agent of destruction of our high-trust, high-cohesion society of yore, which did exist at the time), but there is no moral imperative for him not to press the button.

      Indeed, imagine: the man takes himself as a moral lesson. He becomes a professor of ethics, instructing young men in the proper deontology that corresponds to the in-born conscience of man.

      It is only when the second man presses the button that this first man dies, and he thereby commits two grave evils, not one.

      • Morality exhibits many built-in paradoxes. There can, for example, be no law against murder until there is a first murder. In our account, in Genesis, of the first murder, the law against murder protects (wait for it…) the murderer. Firstness belongs to the structure of reality. There must again have been a first word, in the context of which there were no other words that might gloss it. Deconstruction’s “first principle” is that the idea of the origin of anything, of a first anything, is a myth, but it is deconstruction that is a myth.

      • We should also admire that any proper deontological system covers, both in a theoretical and practical way, these ‘firsts’.

  8. Most people are instinctually utilitarian; which is to say, most people will instinctually aver to the least controversial-sounding bytes available too them; such as ‘I believe in the greatest good for the most people’, which is sometimes defined as utilitarianism.

    Social researchers sometimes can’t seem to make up their minds whether humans are smart or stupid; whether the average man is a solipsistic high time preference irrational hysteric, or a secret evil genius of the most cynically consequentialist rationality almost unerringly homing in wining strategies for itself. The answer obviously, is yes (meaning different areas of performance are being conflated [and also that ‘rationality’ is an overloaded term]).

    The most highly developed area of human cognitive performance, the area most of it’s resources evolved for the sake of, is social intuition. People are very good at telling ‘which way the wind is blowing’, and aligning themselves with that. The main driver of asymptotic ‘leftward’ drift in popular discourses tends to be, not so much the fact that most people are looking to one-up each other with ever more adulterated displays of pseudosanctimonia, but rather the fact that most people are looking to *avoid censure*, and so tend to fall in when faced with (the possibility of) strident devalidation (usually from the aforementioned compulsive one-uppers in the first place).

    The problems of the trolley problem are naturally problems of the context it arose in; namely, the useless kabuki theater of ‘deontological versus consequential ethics’ that is really just the exoteric expression of the shallow spergmatic modes of thought that are essential to modern academy dwellers ignorant (willfully ignorant) of Aristoteles.

    As always cardinal ethics (of which virtue ethics is a subset) is the way and the light.

  9. The equivocation drawn between a lethal assault on one person, which will result in saving the lives of others, and the shifting of train tracks, which will have the immediate effect both of saving five lives and ending one, is not at all obvious, and requires argumentation.

    • @ ArkansasReactionary – It is you who are equivocating by using the phrase “lethal assault.” To equivocate means “to use ambiguous language so as to conceal the truth or avoid committing oneself.” I am drawing a distinction between murder, not “lethal assault,” whatever that is supposed to mean, and letting five people die. I am claiming “Thou Shalt Not Murder.” Is that clear and unequivocal enough? It is clear in the doctor case, in pushing the fat man, in the sheriff and rape suspect case, and in the terrorist case. I have provided an argument. The burden of proof is now on anyone who wants to claim that pulling a lever to murder an innocent person is somehow different from all the other cases where we recognize that murdering an innocent person who would not otherwise die is wrong.

      • By “lethal assault” I mean pushing someone in front of a train, cutting out their organs, or something like that.

        Double effect (that one may perform a neutral action, such as pulling a lever, which will have good and bad consequences, provided that the former outweigh the latter) is standard Catholic moral theology. It needs no further proof.

      • @ ArkansasReactionary – Euphemisms don’t help here. You are condoning murder. By pulling a lever you are engaging in murder. It is not a “neutral action.” It is only a neutral action in the sense that pulling the trigger of a gun is “neutral” – namely, not at all. You are killing an innocent bystander who otherwise would remain unharmed.

        I have discharged the burden of proof. If you wish to prove my argument wrong, you have to actually respond to my argument and distinguish the trolley problem from the other acts of murder that I have listed for your benefit. Simply using phrases like “double effect” or “standard Catholic moral theology” isn’t going to cut it. You have appealed literally exclusively to consequences. I would be most surprised if Catholic morality were only consequentialist. And if it is, to the devil with it!

      • The obvious distinction is that in the normal version of the trolley problem, the person who dies is irrelevant to the action you commit (pulling the lever). His presence doesn’t affect your action (assuming you pull the lever).

        All the others require harm to be inflicted on the person as a means to saving the other lives.

      • @ AR – Assuming the “normal” version of the trolley problem is the one I have described in my little essay – I’m going to let other readers decide which is of us is making the most sense.

  10. Tell the person asking the question that you will only answer the question if they are the person on the bridge. The answer is to let the trolley go where it will. Then as the person leans over the bridge to look at the carnage push them over. Otherwise they will be too difficult to push over as they in the wrong position. No one will even see who pushed the person as they were all looking at the wreck so no witnesses. Hopefully that will be enough for them to avoid asking you questions like that in the future. You could always leave out the first part if you aren’t as black hearted but why not be direct.


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