The Trolley Problem

For the first time in my life, I read an entire book dealing with ethics. And loved it! Tom Cathcart’s The Trolley Problem approaches a famous thought experiment in which a trolley is headed toward 5 people on the track (with the assumption that they will all die if the trolley continues), and a bystander has the opportunity to pull a switch, sending the trolley onto an alternative path where there is only one person who will be killed. Most people agree that pulling the switch is ethical, since five lives are saved, despite the one lost. Many alternate versions of the trolley problem have been devised over time to make different philosophical arguments about ethics and morality. In one version, for example, the trolley is still heading for the 5 innocent people, but a man on a bridge above realizes that if he could throw something heavy in front of the train, it will stop and the five lives will be spared. So he throws a heavyset man, again sacrificing one life to save 5. In this version, the idea that one death is better than five no longer seems to rationalize the person’s action. The trolley problem demonstrates that human ethics are far from clear-cut.

trolley book

In the book, Cathcart makes a thought experiment out of the thought experiment by writing as if the original trolley scenario actually did occur, and Daphne Jones, the woman who pulled the lever and caused the trolley to kill only one person, is on trial for murder. Many different angles are presented, including the prosecutor, defense, a number of professors in various fields, a bishop, a psychologist, and people who call in to express their views on NPR.

Each view is cleverly written, and as one of the jurors admits, regarding the arguments brought up earlier in the book, “After each one of you has spoken, I’ve found myself agreeing with you. Your arguments are all very persuasive – until I hear the next one.” I couldn’t agree with her more.

In the epilogue, Cathcart asks whether we’re any wiser, after hearing arguments for both sides of Daphne’s case. I can only speak for myself, but I feel wiser. This work continually forces the reader to reconsider what seems like a cogent argument, to question intuition, common sense, and rationality. If these faculties are fallible in this fictive case, can we trust them in our real lives?

The section that expressed a professor’s lecture in a class, “Critical Thinking in Contemporary Life,” really struck a chord with me because the subject of the lecture was analogies. She taught that analogies usually compare two people or things without expressing what about them is similar. And while they’re similar, they’re not actually the same, or it would make for a lousy analogy. In the context of Daphne Jones’s case, we have to decide which situation, given a handful of others, some in which the protagonist seems clearly guilty and some in which he/she seems clearly innocent, is most analogous to Daphne’s. The professor warned her class that analogies are “both very useful and very dangerous.” When I read this, I felt the need to both underline this phrase and dog-ear the page. I was pretty excited.

I really loved the interdisciplinary nature of this book – within a few pages, arguments were made based on St. Thomas of Aquinas’s teachings, Jeremy Bentham’s writings, and fMRI findings. As a side note, I’d advise readers to splurge on the physical copy of this book over an e-version, since the cover is a clever depiction of the original thought experiment that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on.

9 thoughts on “The Trolley Problem

  1. So given that this scenario (and any variations of it) is almost certain to never occur in anyone’s life, my question would be: how ethical is it to focus on this improbable ethical problem – and divert other people’s attention towards it – when there are so many real life ethical issues which are literally causing mass suffering/ mass murder to real people right now in the real world?

    Some examples.

    1. Theft is immoral. Taxation is theft. Discuss.
    2. War is an effect of taxation. Without taxation there could be no wars. Discuss.
    3. The initiation of force (assault, coercion, murder, rape, kidnapping, torture etc) is immoral. A ‘government’ is a group of people who claim the monopolistic legal right to initiate force against everyone else in order to achieve their aims. Discuss.
    4. Threatening your neighbour to make them pay for stuff you want is immoral. When you vote in a political election you are advocating (in fact demanding) the government threatens your neighbour, on your behalf, to make them pay for stuff you want. Getting a third party to commit an immoral act on your behalf is just as immoral as committing an immoral act in person. Discuss.
    5. Obeying orders or laws which are immoral is immoral. Examples: gassing jews, funding genocidal wars, confiscating the wealth of others by force etc. Should we therefore disobey immoral laws and orders? What is the government’s official stance on this issue? What do they teach in government controlled schools? Discuss.
    6. ‘Terrorism’ is defined as “the use of violence and intimidation in pursuit of political aims”. When you vote in a democracy you are attempting to use violence and intimidation (via a third party called ‘government’) against your fellow citizens, in pursuit of your own political aims. Thus voting is, by definition, a form of terrorism. Discuss.
    7. The ethics surrounding the recent claims of atrocities in Syria. Discuss.

    These are all examples of REAL LIFE ethical issues affecting real people right now. I humbly suggest that a hypothetical trolly hurtling down a hypothetical track towards some hypothetical people is an attempt to avoid confronting these disturbing and upsetting real life ethical issues, and hundreds others like them.

    1. Thanks for weighing in. Ethical thought experiments in general are useful because they provide us with a context for examining our beliefs in an unbiased context. The trolley problem forces us to address ethical concerns, such as: is it always better to spare 5 lives at the cost of 1? Is passivity ever more ethical than actively trying to mollify a situation? By tweaking the trolley scenario, we can better understand what sets apart situations we consider moral and those we consider immoral? Another important takeaway, which I hope I stressed in my review, is that the trolley problem shows us the cruciality of keeping an open mind – while it would seem to most readers initially that Daphne is undoubtedly in the right, numerous arguments are raised throughout the book that cause the reader to pause and question previously held beliefs.

      Even if the trolley situation is unlikely to occur exactly as it is imagined (and honestly, weirder things have happened in this world, I think) I would argue that every day someone, somewhere has the opportunity to intervene as he/she watches a tragedy unfold, and whether he/she is acting on intuition or rationally, either choice – acting or not acting – will have consequences. That’s why the trolley problem is important. It represents many moral decisions we make in everyday life and presents different angles from which to view the decisions.

    2. I can see your point, Abandon TV–that thought experiments can seem like an ivory-tower pursuit unrelated to the real world. But I question the assumption that thought experiments and real-world dilemmas are in some kind of zero-sum game. You say that this book “diverts” people’s attention toward thought experiments, but were they paying careful, sustained attention to difficult ethical questions before? Perhaps they didn’t even pay attention to ANY ethical dilemmas before, because they all just seemed too thorny and difficult with no way in.Thought experiments can help them find an entry point. And even if they were confronting real issues before they were diverted, who is to say they can’t go back to those real-world problems again after (or as) they read the book, with fresh eyes and invigorated analytical resources?

      1. I’m with you all the way – if analyzing a thought experiment can bring people “fresh eyes and invigorated analytical resources,” as you say (and I couldn’t agree more), they can only help us to tackle real-life ethical problems. Thought experiments also have the bonus that they’re often pretty simple scenarios, allowing us to get to the core of our ethical beliefs, which we can then apply to much more complicated issues like taxation and wars.

      2. So my next annoying question would be… Is there any evidence (even just anecdotal evidence) that these unlikely ethical thought experiments actually help people to apply more reason to the real world… or motivate them to behave any differently in real life?

        It’s not uncommon for a new book about diet and nutrition or modern meat production or the fast food industry to have a tangible effect on its readers and even society as a whole, changing not only their outlook, but their behaviour too.

        I just don’t think the same can be said for things like the trolly problem. It’s just too abstract. And this seems to be the mood for all discussions of morality, ethics and philosophy in state schools, the media, politics etc. Keep it abstract… keep it hypothetical… keep it detached from real life… and don’t bring up the subject in any kind of serious way.

        “..who is to say they can’t go back to those real-world problems again after (or as) they read the book, with fresh eyes and invigorated analytical resources?..”

        I fail to see how the trolley problem contributes anything of value when it comes to basic, real-world ethical issues – like the short list of ethical dilemmas I made in my last comment. For example: theft is immoral. Taxation is theft. Taxation must therefore be immoral. It’s hardly rocket science.

        Like I said, I think abstract, improbable scenarios just distract us from what’s important …. and while the bodies keep piling up day after day, all slaughtered in wars which could not happen without taxation.

        Here’s a real-world scenario to compare with the trolley scenario….

        You’re standing on a bridge next to my house. I shout up to you “I do not wish to fund any of the wars against the middle east”

        You shout back to me “Well, I happen to support those wars and I really want you to fund them”

        Do you..

        1. leave it at that and go about your day
        2. build a cage in your back garden and then come back to my house dressed in a blue costume, armed with a taser, a club and a gun and threaten me with being kidnapped and put inside the cage unless I agree to fund the war
        3. get a third party (such as a government) to threaten me, on your behalf, in the same way as before?

      3. The only “evidence” of the benefit of thought experiments like the trolley problem that I can surmise is anecdotal – my own. After reading something (such as this book) that opens my eyes and encourages me to look at a scenario from new angles, I know that my thinking has improved and my mind has been opened. It’s similar to the process of learning to read – you can’t really measure the benefit of any single book on an individual’s reading progress, but we know that the key to achieving fluent reading is to continually practice and to read many books. After contemplating and reading about one thought experiment, I don’t think my critical thinking abilities have progressed measurably, but I am confident nonetheless that it contributes to overall better critical thinking skills and an ability to see both sides of an issue.

  2. I submit that your “real-world scenario” is also a thought experiment inasmuch as it extracts particular elements of a larger ethical issue in a “pure” way so that we can examine them more closely. You say that the taxation-is-theft problem is “not rocket science,” but in fact the syllogistic logic you apply–logic well-loved by ivory-tower ethicists of yore–is reductive, and it dismisses quite a few other issues related to taxation and our notions of theft.

    So I respond with a similar scenario, (similar in that it does happen in the real world and is also an oversimplification) in order to continue to examine this very thorny problem you’ve raised about tax money funding wars.

    Say there are no taxes and no governments. Some people live in peace, but some people start taking things from others. Some of these thieves band together and decide to make everyone in their valley pay them “protection money.” Then they decide they can start taking over more and more territory to get more and more money. Eventually people on the borders of their territory call a meeting and decide to fight back. They decide who among them is most likely to win a fight and send her out on their behalf. They know she will need resources, so they decide to take up a collection and vote about how to use it. This system works, and it lasts for generations–they continue to pay, and they continue to vote about where the money they give goes. They start using the money collected for roads, schools, arts, and more. Then someone born long after the original threat says, “Why do I have to give you my money?”

    This is an oversimplification that points to questions ignored by the syllogism “Theft is immoral. Taxation is theft. Therefore taxation must be immoral.” For example, is taxation theft when we vote about how to spend it? Does being outvoted obligate one to follow majority rule? Can our ancestors put us under contractual obligation toward a government (i.e., does being born into a state obligate one to that state)? And perhaps most importantly, if we don’t pay taxes, who is to stop might making right?

    All that being said, I am well aware that my country (the US) is NOT in the underdog position of those in my scenario. I sympathize quite a bit with your distress about taxes being used to fund wars I wish we weren’t fighting. I was raised in a nonviolent tradition and went to a Mennonite university where nonviolence was encouraged, at least as an option to take more seriously than the mainstream generally does. In class, we engaged in a lot of thought experiments along the lines of “What would you do if someone threatened to kill your spouse and child?” as well as questions about how to engage with governments that perpetrated acts we could not conscience. Some of my profs either refused to pay the percentage of their taxes that went to fund wars or intentionally lived below the poverty line so that they wouldn’t have to pay war taxes. All these conversations and examples influenced me profoundly. In addition to thought experiments, I DO think about real-world ethical problems, and I think my training significantly enriched my ability to do so.

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