Friday, December 2, 2011

A Final Answer to the Trolley Problem

After a semester of studying ethics and many different moral codes and schools of thought, it was hard to decide upon a solution to answer the trolley problem. The two ideologies that struck me as the most applicable to this problem were Utilitarianism and Kant's Categorical Imperative. In this trolley, there is one child on board who is going down the track that will end and crash and he will die, but at the station, you can pull the lever where it will redirect the trolley onto a track where there are three kids playing, who will be run over by the trolley. You have to make a choice about it, as not pulling the lever is the same as choosing to end the life of the one child on board.

The Utilitarian Calculus states that one should act in such a way that minimizes pain and increases pleasure for the most amount of people. This means that in the trolley problem, one should let the train run its course to end the life of the one child inside the trolley rather than the multiple children playing on the track farther down if the trolley were to switch directions. By not pulling the lever, only one child would perish, which would lead to less pain for a greater number of people, whereas pulling the lever would cause more pain for a greater number of people.

A Kantian theorist would say that one should pull the lever in way that could be willed as a universal maxim for all people in the same situation. In this case, one would probably also let the train continue, but for different reasons. I find this problematic, however, as the circumstances could change but the maxim would not. For instance, what if the one child on the train was a child of an important diplomat or politician, or even your own child? In this case you would like to pull the lever and save the one person, but is this really moral? It seems like changing circumstances could change the maxim and cause it to be somewhat fluctuating in meaning and not universal.

I would choose the Utilitarian method for the trolley problem. Which moral code would you choose, and why?

NOTE: Your choice does not have to be between Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, those are just the two I choose as they were the most relevant to my personal beliefs on the issue.


  1. In theory, I think the Utilitarian calculus makes the most sense. At the most basic level, it appears to be the correct decision (trading a few lives to save many more)

    In reality, there is no way that could pull the lever. I honestly believe that "killing people" and "letting people die" are fundamentally different, despite what Sartre may say.

    The reason is this: Absent my presence, the same result would occur. if i were not at the train track, the scenario would end no differently than if i were to let the train continue down the track.

    I'm sure some of you would be disturbed/shocked/uncomfortable with this reasoning. But think of it this way...

    Who am i to make that decision? Why should i deem the lives of those 5 more valuable than the others? I should not (and do not) have to power to make that determination. That is a responsibility too great for me, or anyone one of us for that matter.

    If i pulled the lever, I wouldn't be able to explain to the mother why I was directly responsible for killing her child. I couldn't justify pulling the lever. (On the other hand, it would be much easier to explain not pulling the lever)

    That reasoning isn't an ethical justification for my decision not to pull the lever. it's a practical one. It takes into account human emotions and the real-life consequences that aren't considered by the detached, formulaic utilitarian calculus.

  2. I think that Kant's theory, when applied to this problem, creates an impossible situation. That is to say, if one were to understand that whatever their action, they would be justifying that kind of action in another situation like this by any other person in the world, there is no answer that would become satisfactory. If I were situated in the trolley problem and I decided to pull the lever, which will save the life of the child on board yet kill the three children playing, I am choosing to justify the act of killing the children to save another. On the other hand, if I choose not to pull the lever, killing the child on board and saving the other children playing, I would then be justifying the action of killing one child to save several others. According to Kant's theory, no matter what choice I choose to act upon I am validating the action of killing, and I make it into a universal law. There is then no way that either choice will be able to create a morally upstanding law for the rest of the world. You simply cannot come to a satisfactory conclusion when pairing the Trolley Problem and Kant's categorial imperative.

  3. In this situation I think that the best decision would be in accordance with the utilitarian calculus. Although killing someone is bad in itself, it would make more sense to not touch the lever, thus allowing the three other kids to be killed.

    Also, it makes sense to say that even if I was not present in this situation, the same thing that would happen if I WAS there would occur: The one child would be killed. (This is in reference to a point Thomas made.)

    I would rather let nature take its course, and at the same time allow only one child to be killed rather than letting three other kids perish. This decision allows me to reduce pain and allow the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people.

  4. Thomas,

    I think I understand your reasoning, and your point about the absence of your presence is an intriguing one. Nevertheless, I disagree with you when you ask "Who am I to make this decision?", suggesting that you ought not make the decision to kill the three children. Unfortunately, If you are witness to the trolley speeding down the track and are physically capable of pulling the lever, the choice is simply forced on you. Saying that you do not have the right to pull the lever is not a possible choice, rather it is a possible justification for one of the only two choices: namely, the choice to not pull the lever. You would still have to explain to the mother of the child in the trolley why you did not pull the lever to save her child. The fact that you don't mention this suggests, I think, that you know that it would be easier to justify the death of her one child rather than the death of the three.

    Either way,

  5. I think the fact that this trolley problem is so difficult supports Sartre's existentialism in a way. It seems like there truly is no moral code written in nature, no universally right or wrong answers to this or any other question. We have the freedom to choose our actions, to pull the lever or walk away. Depending on the circumstances and our own moral inclinations, we might choose to do either, but ultimately, since we have defined the morality, we are also responsible for the consequences. I'm sure there will be plenty of people who disagree, but to me, this is starting to feel almost right.


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