Throwing a person in front of a Trolley: When it’s Right and Why – An Armchair Ethics Post

Would you kill one person to save a group? Sounds like the worst choice anyone would ever have to make. How can you weigh one person’s life against another or multiple lives? Are all lives weighted in value equally? Are some people more worth saving than others, worth more than another person’s life? A commonly referenced moral dilemma that is used to explore this question is the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem is the following. Imagine yourself standing beside tracks with a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up people lying on the track. There is also a single person lying on a side track and you are close enough to the lever to change the direction of the trolley so that the five lives are saved and only the single person is killed. The standard question asked to students are:

Do you do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the track? or

Do you pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track with only the one individual?

In some examples, the person must actually be thrown in front of the trolley from an overpass. How do we make that decision? There are a number of factors that need to be considered and it should be noted that not all ethical theories come to the same conclusion. For those familiar with Utilitarianism, one of the leading ethical theories today, the answer to this dilemma may seem fairly simple.

Under Utilitarianism, every rational agent must seek to maximize utility. Bring about the greatest good. Utility being often taken to mean happiness and pleasure. Through our actions, the happiness and pleasure that is generated, which is part of the outcome, is measured as utility. For example, if I spend time feeding the homeless, a consequence of that is that more people are happy, there is a greater good generated, and there is a lot of utility. On the other hand, if I spend time feeding myself, a consequence is that I am happy, there is a greater good generated, but there is not too much utility. Feeding many homeless versus myself generates more good. Within this logic, it is very clear that we should save many people over just one. The good that is generated from multiple people outweighs the good generated for just the one person. But under Utilitarianism, we run into difficulty. A critique has always been that perhaps the one individual would generate far more good i.e. utility, in the long term through his or her actions than the other five combined.

If the person that is saved goes on to invent the cure to cancer or writes a literary masterpiece, while the five others do very little and contribute little to humanity, it intuitively now seems true that we should save the one person. In response, it seems clear that we should not play with hypotheticals. Whether the one person can generate more good in the future than the other five combined is entirely unknown. Since you could easily say one of the five, or even two of the five, can just as likely do the same as the one, we must make the decision on what is known. In this example as shared, the only thing that is known is that either five lives will be saved and one life ended, or five people will die. Based on what is known, while not a simple decision, a clear and rational mind would choose to save the five by diverting the trolley to the track with just the one person.

So we know that five lives trump one. But what about the moral agent? Does the action of pulling the lever, or throwing the person onto the track to derail the train, imply the moral agent is doing something that is wrong? Another way to look at the problem is that by doing nothing, events unfold along the path that they are currently on. It is a difference of letting something happen that kills people and actually taking action that would kill someone. Many people do see this as a determining factor in whether to throw the person onto the track to derail the train or pull the lever. It, however, does not seem reasonable that a person’s conscience should be more bothered by letting five people die than to pull a lever that they are standing beside to save the five lives. That is actually what is being done. Rather than see this dilemma as an act of killing because a life is taken, it should be seen in its true sense as the act of saving five lives. For the bystander who must take the action, they should know that pulling the lever, pushing the person on the track, is the right thing to do because lives are being saved in that action.