Choosing the more ethical option

José Azel

Does our society owe anything to the poor or the unfortunate? If so, at what cost to others should help be provided? Philosophers who struggle with these questions often refer to a thought experiment in ethics and psychology called the trolley problem. The trolley problem illustrates the ethical dilemma of whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number of persons.

The basic scenario describes a runaway trolley on course to collide with and kill five people down the track. The people are unable to move, and the trolley is headed straight for them. But you, as a bystander, can intervene and divert the trolley to kill just one person on a different track. You are standing next to a lever in the train yard. If you pull this lever the trolley will switch to a different track and avoid hitting the five people. However, there is one person on the track you will divert the trolley to. Your options are: Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track or pull the lever to divert the trolley to a secondary track where it will kill one person.

What is the right thing to do? Or more technically, which is the more ethical option to follow?

Philosopher Philippa Foot introduced this genre of decision problems in a 1967 paper and many variations have been introduced since. One variation you may find more challenging posits that the one person on the secondary track that will, or will not, be sacrificed is your own child. What then?

Another interesting variation sets the problem as before, with a trolley racing towards five people but you are on a bridge under which the trolley will pass. You can stop the trolley by placing something heavy in front of it. In this variation there is a very fat man next to you on the bridge. You can stop the trolley by pushing the fat man over the bridge onto the track. This action will save the five but kill the fat man. Should you do it? It turns out that most people that would pull the switch will not push the fat man to save the five. Is there a significant moral distinction between the two variations?

Interestingly, trolley-type issues have arisen in the ethics of designing self-driven vehicles which require programing of whom or what to strike when a collision appears unavoidable. Should the vehicles software place more, or less, value on the safety of the car’s occupants or on the safety of potential victims outside the car. Would you be willing to purchase a self-driven car programed to sacrifice yourself in an accident situation? What would be the marketing line? Automakers are currently dealing with these topics.

In 2017 a realistic trolley-problem experiment was conducted where individuals were placed alone in a train-switching station and shown footage they thought was real (but it was pre-recorded) of a train going down a track with five workers on the main track, and one on the secondary track. Most of the participants did not pull the lever thus allowing the trolley to kill the five people on the main track. Keep in mind this was an actual experiment; on the other hand, in several surveys a majority of respondent have chosen to kill the one and save the five. Do you agree?

One consideration philosophers point out is that in the case of the five deaths on the main track, you have no intention of deliberately harming anyone, whereas by switching to the secondary track you deliberately intend someone’s death, and this is wrong. This philosophical doctrine allows an action that, without intention, has bad effects. Yet, intending harm deliberately, even if it is for a good cause, is wrong.

So, let’s bring the trolley problem to policymaking? For instance, how do we choose what is the more ethical option in our tax laws? If deliberately intending harm, even if it is for a good cause, is wrong then are we comfortable taxing the few disproportionally high to help the many?

Dr. Azel’s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”

“The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author”.