The Trolley Problem

Would you kill one to save many?

This is a classic ethical thought experiment introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967. Essence of this thought experiment is to reveal inconsistencies and peculiar patterns in our intuition moral judgment when there are no desirable options left, and to show the need of consistent moral system. Most of you who read this must have heard, read or even seen on the tv shows about this ethical dilemma where one have to make a choise that would decide the lives of many other people.
Imagine a trolley or a tram car speeding down on tracks toward five people who can’t escape in time when they notice it. You happen to stand next to a lever that can change the tracks and change the course of the trolley and save those five people from getting killed but other track has a worker on it too. If you pull the lever and divert the trolley he will die but other filve will survive. So what would you do? pull the lever?
Now consider the second version of it.
Imagine a trolley speeding down the tracks towards five people who can’t get away in time. You standing on footbridge and there’s a very large man next to you. If you push the large man on to the tracks down below, his body will stop the trolley and save those five people but he will die. What would you do this time? push him?

So what are your answers? Did you kill one and save five or kill five and save one ? How consistent are you with your choises?
There are two influential moral theories that can give us a perspective or a guide to decide what we should do under such circumstances. So if you are someone who decides to kill one worker to save five in both scenarios, your judgement aligns with a moral theory called utilitarianism, which says the action you must take is the action that maximise the overall happiness of the maximum number of people. According to their view, as long as consequences of an action gurantee the benefits for the greatest number of people, that action is morally permissible. In other words, you are justified in taking a life to save five other.
If you are someone who couldn’t kill one worker to save five in both scenarios, your moral judgement aligns with a moral theory called deontology. In contrast to utulitarianism, deontology says morality of an action should be based on intrinsic value of the action under a series of rules rather looking at the consequences of the action. Deontologist would argue taking a life to save five or even a hundred is not permissible because murder itself is immoral. They prioritise the rights of an action over the good it brings.
Both of these theories are go much deeper into the question what is the right thing to do, but i’m barely scratching the surface here.

What about people who agrees with utilitarians in the first scenarios and take the deontologist perspective in the second one?

According to a research done by a philosophy graduate named Joshua Green, most people who are inconsistent with their choices have a differnet brain region associated with the choise they made. Both scenarios activate the brain region that are responsible for rational thinking, conscious decision making(profrontal cortex) and emotional response(Amygdala). In the second scenario, emotional response is much stronger and makes it harder to push man off the bridge. This is because we are emotianally trained to avoid harming another human being therefore even we know the outcome is the same, it feels uncomfortable and personal to kill someone deliberately than allowing them to die.

Philosophers and phychologists have long criticise this ethical dilemma saying that its too unrealistic to be used in real world problems and participants don’t take it seriously. But recent rise in technology have made this ethical analysis more important than ever. Self driving cars, autonomous military drones will have to make decisions on who to save and who to risk, so it is important humans to understand how to value human life and what is greater good.

This is one of the many ethics posts we are going to post on this website. So keep an eye out for the updates.

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