Illustration by Chandra Hardita.
You control a railroad junction halfway across the country. A live feed on a screen gives you a view of a track that diverges into two. Five labourers are carrying out maintenance work along the main track. Without warning, an unmanned trolley cart barrels down the tracks towards the five oblivious workers. You have a choice. There is a switch in front of you, if you flip the switch, you can divert the trolley onto the second track and save their lives. The issue? There is one labourer on the second track. Would you sacrifice his life to save the lives of five others?
For this thought experiment, let’s forget that there are any other options. Let's say not one person on the tracks notices; even if they did, it'd be too late to run. Let's say there is no one around who can advise you. There isn't anything or anyone who could warn the workers of their impending doom: no signals, no bells, nothing. It's one or five, and it's entirely down to you.
The trolley problem in real life
For years, variations of this thought experiment have been debated on paper. It was finally carried out for “real” in a study by YouTuber Michael Stevens of VSauce last year. In much the same way as I’ve described above, participants were given a switch that controlled which track a cart would follow. Staged, pre-recorded segments played on a screen and gave the illusion that participants controlled the tracks in real time and that they had all the power to choose between saving five labourers or one. In reality, no one was in any danger.
The study was fascinating as it showed the difference between what people think they’d do in the situation against what they actually do. Only a minority of the participants in the study switched the tracks in favour of saving five lives over one. But, you’ve got to ask: is it so wrong to feel as if the lives of others shouldn’t be in your hands and let the trolley take its course?
The greyness of morality
The trolley problem’s long-standing popularity as a thought experiment comes down to its ability to demonstrate the differences between two schools of thought within ethics: consequentialism and deontology.
Before you zone out, let me explain. Consequentialists focus only on the morality of outcomes, disregarding the means used to get to that outcome. So, had you chosen to flip the switch, your action can be morally justified. Although the resulting death of one is unfortunate, they died to achieve an overall greater good of saving more lives. This approach, within consequentialism, is known as classic utilitarianism, where each action’s morality is judged only by its ability to maximise beneficial outcomes. But therein lies the problem of consequentialism and where a lot of people may trip up: isn’t it wrong per se to kill? After all, you’ve taken the deliberate action of flipping the switch. Consequentialism fails to address the morality of the actions that lead to the outcome.
This is where deontology comes in. While consequentialism looks at the morality of outcomes, deontology focuses only on the ethics of actions, no matter their consequences. Leading thinkers within deontology, such as Immanuel Kant, propose ways of finding hard and fast rules that consistently remain right or wrong. The rigidity of deontology can be advantageous; there's no umming or ahhing about what's right in one situation versus another. Deontology doesn't care if you flipped the switch to save five workers because you’ve doomed one to their death. Kant would say that killing is inherently and consistently wrong and that any rational person would agree with this notion. Kant would also ask: what gives you the right to disrespect that one worker to the point you’ve essentially used their life so that you could get to a consequence you deem better? But, isn’t it also inherently right to do everything in your power to save as many people as possible? How is it possible not to consider the outcomes of your actions?
And here, my friends, is the beauty of the trolley problem. Consequentialism and deontology provide a springboard from which to analyse the situation, and this holds true for many ethical dilemmas in everyday life. All you need to do to get started is ask yourself: do the ends ever justify the means? Or do the means justify any end?