The Trolley Problem
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:
Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?”
In my mind, first of all, critical thinking (rationality) is purposive, goal oriented; another way to ask the question is, what ought to be your goal? The rational egoist would ask “what’s in my best interest?” If she does nothing, how is she culpable? Does she have a moral obligation to do anything? If she pulls the switch or pushes the man over the bridge, she has committed an immoral act. The issue is now whether immoral acts are incommensurable. Would you consider this as choosing the lesser of two evils?
For the act utilitarian, the rule is simple: pull the switch, push the man. For the rule utilitarian it gets complicated.
If you argue, that the goal shouldn’t be to save as many lifes as possible, would you stay consistent if we were talking about sacrificing one life to save 5,000 or 5 million lives?
If your child or loved one was the one the rails, would you still opt to save the 5 billion instead? Would you push your child to save 5 million? What happens if you knew the one person was a noble prize winning scientist, poised to publish a cure for cancer that would save 10 million lives a year, would you sacrifice the 5, 5000 or 5 million?
Lastly, imagine that you own the rail company and there are insurance claim implications? Would you sacrifice the one because that’s the cheaper option in terms of damages?
Cecil (CJ) John is an architect, technologist and innovator and has worked with some of the largest companies in the world including the IMF, US Federal Government and some of the top 5 consulting companies. If you like what you have read, you can follow me on Medium for more great content. You can also sign up for my newsletter or contact me by email, Linkedin or Twitter.