The Trolley Problem: Would You Kill One Person To Save Five?


We’d like you to picture an imaginary scenario right now...


You are somewhere near the trolley tracks and suddenly you hear a trolley out of control hurtling towards you.

Then you see five workers on the tracks carrying tools and there is no way they can see the trolley coming.

It is now too late to warn them as they would be crushed by the time they get up and run.

Suddenly you realize that you stand next to the lever that can reroute the trolley.

However, there is also a lower track and only one worker is standing on it unaware of what’s going on.

What would you do?

Would you pull the lever and and reroute the trolley to that one person in order to save other five?

2. Would you pull the lever?

Yes, I’d prefer one person dying rather than five.
No, I would never ever pull the lever.

3. Which of the above did you choose?

You wouldn’t even hesitate to pull the lever if you are like the majority of people.

After all, it is better to kill one instead of five, right?

4. Now let’s change the scenario a little bit.

This time you are on an overpass above the tracks. The trolley is again hurtling towards five people. There is a big fat guy witnessing all of this next to you.

You know that if you push the guy to the tracks he will block the way with his huge body and five people will be rescued.

What would be your decision in this case?

Would you push the guy?

5. What would you do?

I would never ever push the guy.
I would push him. One person may die, but five will survive.

6. Which of the above did you choose?

The idea of killing an innocent person would terrify you if you are like the majority of people.

Although there was just a minor change in the scenario, most of you preferred to pull the lever and saved five people in the first case.

But why couldn’t you sacrifice one person to save five this time?

7. The Cognitive Process of the Dilemmma

Philosophers Philippa Foot and Jarvis Thompson’s Trolley Problem is an intriguing example of how human beings’ decision making process alters when emotions are involved, even if the outcomes would be the same.

Most people choose to pull the lever in the first scenario while they refuse to sacrifice the fat guy in the second one.

So does this mean our moral tendencies are not always dependable, rational or consistent?

Maybe there are other factors that we don’t know about influencing our moral standpoint in the decision making process then?

8. Utilitarianism

Foot argues that there is a distinction between killing a person and letting them die if a majority of people prefer to pull the lever but not to push the fat guy, or kill a patient who is still alive even though both scenarios will have the same outcome. The first case scenario involves an active intervention while the second one is rather passive. In the first trolley problem, the person who pulls the lever lets one die and saves five. After all, pulling the lever does not harm the person on the lower track directly. But in the second scenario in which you are on the overpass, it is actually actively killing a person on purpose.

Just to make sure, a minority of people still adopt a utilitarian attitude and would rather push the fat guy to save five people. Utilitarianism is a philosophical thought that supports the idea of taking the action which promotes the most gain or happiness for the greatest number of people. Yet, for most of us, it is not morally acceptable to act in a utilitarianist way in the second scenario. The outcomes are the same in both cases, but many philosophers argue that even for a good purpose, harm should not be done.

9. Activated Areas in the Brain

Neuroscientists did research to find out which areas of the brain are activated when people think about the first two variables of the trolley problem.

They came to the conclusion that the first scenario activates a rational thinking process, implying that our intent is to save the most possible number of people if we decide to pull the lever.

However, when we have to decide whether or not to push the fat guy, our emotions come into play and we think differently about killing one person to save five.

What do you think at this point? Do our emotions direct us to the right decision? Should we avoid sacrificing one person even for the sake of saving five people?

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