How Would You React to the Trolley Problem?

The moral dilemma: Would you sacrifice one person’s life to save, say, a number of others? Alex Tabarrok describes it at the Marginal Revolution blog this way:

In one variant of the trolley problem a trolley is rapidly bearing down on the innocent five who can be saved but only by pushing a single fat man onto the tracks.  Do you push the fat man or not?  The question throws into stark relief the moral theories of consequentialism and deontology.

Also, in The Motivated Use of Moral Principles the authors show that self-identified liberals are more reluctant to sacrifice an individual with a stereotypical black name than one with a stereotypical white name, despite prior affirmation that race should be irrelevant to moral questions of this kind. Conservatives are more race neutral.

By the way, Alex has a good summary of the issues with links to the relevant literature.

Comments (22)

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  1. Bruce says:

    It’s interesting that liberals and conservatives respond to this problem in different ways. The authors speculate that liberals feel more guilty about past racial injustices and this accounts for their being less willing to sacrifice one to save five if the one is black.

  2. Tom H. says:

    There are other interesting versions of this problem, such as too many people in a life boat — so that one has to be passed overboard in order to save the rest — just like in the Tyrone Power movie.

  3. Devon Herrick says:

    If I’m one of the five people I would probably favor sacrificing the one to save the many. However, if I’m the one guy I would likely figure it tough luck for the other five.

  4. Tom H. says:

    Devon, that is a completly Hobbsean answer, devoid of reference to any overriding moral principles.

  5. Virginia says:

    I haven’t looked in depth at how they conduct these studies, but I don’t think the questions work if participants have too much time to think about it. They need some sort of computer program whereby you must decide via a video game-type interface. The more time you have to think, the less honest your answer.

  6. Paul H. says:

    The problem with these “problems” is that they all represent “life boat ethics.” If all of life were a life boat, we would need a different moral compass than the one most of us live with today.

  7. Sterling Burnett says:

    In fairness to Devon, it is only if you rule out egoism as a moral theory that you can say his statement is devoid of an overriding moral principle. The principle might be, Alway act so as to further your own best interests. This principle is even universilizable. Yes it will lead to conflicts but so do all moral principles.

    Another philosophical issue raised by the trolley and other “situation ethics” examples one might present is the difference between acts and omissions. One could say in a situation where one must choose between saving one or five, you should save five (leaving aside questions of worth, desert, or social value — afterall what if the fat guy was going to the patent office with the cure for cancer and a workable fusion power plant, while the five people on the street are escaped murderers), but not agree that you should kill one to save five. From a consequentialists perspective, universilizing this principle might lead us to look with suspicion on our fellow travellers alway ready to fight or kill not to be the one sacrificed. A society where such suspicion is rife might have less overall utility than one which followed a hard and fast rule, “You can’t kill one to save more than one.”

    In short, the situation is hardly black and white nor does it necessarily set up an opposition between consequential and deontological positions.

  8. artk says:

    Actually, George Lakoff would have a better analysis of your trolley problem. Conservatives tend to follow the strict father formulation, where you let people pay for the consequences of their actions rather then try to minimize the consequences of their mistakes. Under that framework, the conservatives will let them all die in the belief it will make everyone else act more carefully.

  9. Seamus says:

    “Pssst, hey you five guys- there’s a trolley bearing down on you! Save yourselves so I don’t have to push the fat guy!!”

  10. Joe Barnett says:

    This is simply one of many Benthamite attempts at a moral calculus based on numbers. The obvious answer is, I know something about the potential sacrificial victim: The person is a male. He is fat. His name is Tyrone, or Chip as I know him, perhaps at the golf course (where he either a pro or a caddy — which would make a difference re the liberal/conservative dichotomy).

    The five others are simply an undifferentiated crowd. And what makes them innocent? What would make them guilty?

    I would go with Chip, whom I know, not the anonymous many.

  11. Tom says:

    Men being equal,
    Kill 1 to save 5.
    Kill 4 to save 5.

    Men not being equal,
    Kill 1 to save 5.
    Kill 5 to save 1.

  12. Tom says:

    The men being my family,
    The world can burn.

  13. Joe Barnett says:

    Tom: Rand would say, one should never sacrifice a higher value to a lower value. Valuable to whom for what? To me,for the pursuit of my life. Not the collective or impersonal duty.

  14. Tom says:

    Then stick a knife in them all. This is your life?

  15. Joe Barnett says:

    Just not Tyrone — if he’s a good caddy.

  16. Tom says:

    Haha! Oh, come now: your life or Tyrone’s? You’d save the greater value for yourself, am I right?

    So you’d stick a knife in him.

  17. Joe Barnett says:

    I value my life more than I value Tyrone’s. That doesn’t mean I would agress against him.
    My point is that people are of unequal value to any of us – based on our sentiments: Who would throw their own child in front of the trolley to save five children they don’t know?

  18. Joe Barnett says:

    Re Sterling Burnett’s discussion of consequentialism versus the deontological position. The philosopher Tibor H. Machan happens to have a new post on that very subject, and says that it isn’t a useful distinction [!B2FD693F4B9A5746!2339.entry]
    I say: scratch a Kantian, and you’ll find a consequentialist.

  19. Tom says:

    From what you’ve said until now, if you had to choose Tyrone or you then too bad for Tyrone. What you’re saying now is that you wouldn’t seek out Tyrone to kill him. The statements do not contradict; by taking the latter position, you’re not recanting the former. They are both consistent with taking the “higher value” for yourself.

    Oh, your statement that a man’s own is much more valuable to him throws into doubt whether mathematical ethics exist beyond the realm of round squares. You’re doing a number on utilitarianism and hedonism Joe.

  20. Sterling Burnett says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that consequentialism can’t be considered a moral theory since it is unlikely that many of the people in the world would be able to meet the standard of “good person,” or “sound moral actor,” simply because of ignorance, stupidity or knowledge constraints. To the extent that consequentialism requires — as utilitarianism does — that for each actor for every action he/she attempts to calculate which outcome his/her proposed action would produce the greatest net balance or benefit over harm (or some such similar result — maximize preference satisfaction, minimize harm, maximize pleasure, etc…) someone acting in good faith but who is not very good at predicting the results of his/her action might rarely take a moral action. They’ve tried their best, done the calculus, a result has occurred but it is bad — worse than if they had chosen differently — thus they (their action is) are immoral. And since this is routinely the result for this person, they have no hope of being judged moral. Indeed, the ultimate result of their actions may rest largely beyond their control. Its hard, I would argue, to make the case for a moral system being called a moral system, much less one which should be adopted, in which judements about the ultimatel moral worth of the actors within the systme is largely beyond their control. In such a case, you can’t choose to take the “right” course of action, you can only choose, and hope that it is right.

  21. Tom says:

    What is most pleasurable Mr. Burnett? Surely there are things more painful than death.

    After all, a man wouldn’t push Tyrone in front of the trolley if Tyrone was his father and the 5 potential victims were his wife and 4 children. He may risk his own life saving them, don’t you think? By his actions he has claimed that there are things worse than his death, or that there are things better than being alive.

    Would you praise him Mr. Burnett? I don’t think Joe would praise him unless he recants.

  22. Joe says:

    Tom & Sterling bring up a number of interesting points. I think Tom would agree that one can always throw oneself under the trolley, morally speaking, & even if it leaves four orphans. I would say to Sterling that without forethought, moral action isn’t possible, one is simply blindly flailing about.
    It isn’t immoral, it’s just not volitional. Here’s an example of where forethought is essential: as one learns in lifeguard training, when rescuing a drowning person in their panic they are likely to grab you and pull you under. What to do? Don’t struggle, let them pull you under (ie, almost drown you) and then, when they stop struggling get them in a lock from behind, so they can’t reach you, and both the victim & the rescuer can be saved. Conversely, knowing I would likely be drowned, I would stand on the bank of a fast moving flood, and watch, rather than futilely attempt a doomed rescue.