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The Trolley Problem: Conflicting Principals of Morality

In April 2020 the world was in chaos. Italy was the first healthcare system to collapse. That was when global coverage showcased to the audience the brutality of choice. It was revealed that the limited oxygen ventilators were supplied to younger patients whilst the elderly were left to their unwelcome fate. The strange factor in this incident was that it was the elderly who were most likely to succumb to COVID-19. A little further delve into medical ethics would make one realise the complexities involving such choices. Whilst age might serve as a factor in the likelihood of survival of such diseases, choices like these also stem from the basic human mentality of preserving the greater good. This is a classic real-life example of the infamous thought experiment in ethics called the trolley problem.

Published in a 1967 paper by Philippa Foot, the trolley problem begins with a trolley on a track which is about to run over five people who cannot escape. The trolley has the capability of diverting to an alternate track, this time with one person trapped on the track.

Image Source: New York Magazine

Now you are the observer who must decide which track the trolley takes. Would you save one at the cost of five lives or would you work towards the greater good?

When surveyed across many schools around the world, it was found that over ninety per cent of people were willing to sacrifice one to save the five who were trapped. However, when the situation was put forth, such that the one person trapped in the track was a loved one like a friend or a family member, participants immediately changed their decision to save the singular person at the cost of five unknown lives.

Another variation of this problem was posed to participants. This time the thought experiment involved a single trolley running towards five trapped men with no option to change the track. However, this time the participant was placed on a bridge over the trolley with another person. The participant now had the option to throw the person off the bridge to stop the trolley from running over the five others who were trapped. This again would kill off a singular man to save five lives, but the difference here was that the participant held no lever to switch tracks but was directly responsible for committing the murder. It was found that most participants disliked the thought of pushing someone to their death even if it meant saving more lives. To the participants, this act felt more personal.


Image Source: New York Magazine

Further research revealed that participant behaviour and feeling also contributed to the outcome of the study. In one case, participants were more likely to push the one person if they were shown a comedy clip before being questioned about the problem. In another variation, men were more likely to be thrown off the bridge as compared to a woman. Another study also showed that men were more likely to push the victim off the bridge as compared to women.

The intention of Foot to introduce this problem was initially to tackle debates on Abortion Rights and the Principle of Double Effect. The problem however opened a widespread discussion in the field of business, collateral damages in war, and medicine, and of course, gave a whole new meaning to morality and ethics.

Most nations, including democratic nations, believe and focus on the concept of the greater good. An ideal government prioritizes the general public over any perceived threat. However, in conflict zones, it has often been seen that diplomats and politicians are given greater preference when it comes to safety as compared to civilians living in such areas. All the more, most countries prioritize their own countrymen’s safety in conflict zones with no regard towards collateral damage occurring to civilians of another nationality.

Historically from a religious angle, the trolley problem can also be investigated through ancient texts. Religious texts seem to showcase the solution of righteousness irrespective of your own personal connection to the concerned party, to solve the trolley problem.  In Luke VIII of the New Testament, there was the case of Jesus healing an outcast woman who had suffered from a disease for twelve years. This occurs at the cost of the death of a twelve-year-old daughter of a prominent synagogue leader (who is later revived by Jesus himself). In the Hindu Epic Mahabharat, Prince Yudhishthira is tested by Yama (the God of Death) to choose who lives, between two of his own brothers and two of his half-brothers. Yudhishthira chooses the life of one of his half-brothers to honour his stepmother thus pleasing Yama in the process who grants him the lives of all his brothers.

The trolley problem has also garnered criticisms from many as a pointless approach to ethics as everyday examples around us are a few and it is unlikely for most people to ever come across a similar circumstance and be presented with such a choice. However, scientists are researching the concept of ethics and working with philosophers to introduce these ethics in Artificial Intelligence. In the near future, an autonomous drone can be programmed to decide if collateral damage in a war zone is acceptable if the target is high profile. Artificial intelligence on social media platforms can determine if the information circulated is dangerous to the public or not. The limitations of technology use are endless.


Whilst this problem continues to be highly debatable, it is for now at the epicentre of the principles of ethics and morality. Until a better-equipped problem comes forth and replaces the trolley problem, Foot’s foundations will continue to puzzle thinkers for a long time to come.


Edited By: Whitney Edna Ibe 

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