The Trolley Problem

An article written by Lee Sonogan


The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment in ethics. There is a runaway trolley moving 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 tied up on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice? If you were in this situation what would you do? In a live social experiment done in the video below 6 out of 8 people choose to do nothing. They freaked out and blamed it on the technology. Two felt like they were compelled to do something. They choose to act on the greater good. When participants are deciding whether or not to flip a switch, there is an increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with logic, reason, and problem-solving.

Further studies found that there are two groups of people who don’t have an emotional response to the trolley problem. Those groups? Psychopaths and Buddhist monks. If we use this information in automotive vehicles and AI. It could be programmed always to make a choice for the greater good in a crash situation. Also this study gives us information to prepare for a situation that is prone to human error.

If there was someone on the track that you knew or someone judged by appearance, you would judge of that in the moment.  Children interviewed for kids podcast Short & Curly said an important thing about the trolley problem. “Can’t you just flick the switch so the train topples over and that would save all the people from dying?”. “I would want to learn who that one person was and I would write a letter to their family and explain why I had to do it.”. “Five lives are greater than one, so why would I sacrifice five lives just to save one, even if that person was my best friend that’s five lives and you’re only one life so I would rather have you gone.”

A thought experiment that I would not like to be involved in real life. If you were in this situation, it could be brutal for you and could give you post traumatic stress. The 50-year-old dilemma is a question of human morality, and an example of a philosophical view called consequentialism. This view says that morality is defined by the consequences of an action, and that the consequences are all that matter. But exactly which consequences are allowable?

“Joshua Greene, the Harvard researcher, told me that the trolley dilemma has been used to answer questions like, “Can visual imagery actually influence a moral judgment? Can a neurotransmitter have a directional influence on moral judgment? Could the language in which you read about a moral question influence your answer?” across dozens of published papers.

The trolley problems don’t tell us what we’d do if we actually faced an out-of-control streetcar, he argues, they just highlight subtle quirks of our internal moral GPS systems.
“It’s not ‘Let’s study trolley problems because they’re representative of problems we face in everyday life,’” Greene told me. “It’s ‘Here’s an interesting puzzle. If we follow it, we might learn something important.’” – The Atlantic magazine, Olga Khanzan

Here is some links to my new book for sale:

One thought on “The Trolley Problem

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.