A Beginner’s Guide to “The Trolley Problem”

By Elena and Lily

“The Trolley Problem” is a complicated problem we present as a moral question to challenge people’s thinking. There are many variations of the problem with no right answer. It’s a question many people have spent hours agonizing over trying to find a correct answer to no avail. In this article we hope to present these questions to you to challenge your thinking, remember there is no right answer, but you have to make a choice. 

We aren’t going to examine every single “Trolley Problem” but we are going to dive into the main 3 that are cited.

Disclaimer: this is not meant to be a judgement on anyone’s character, we are simply showing the problems and explaining the philosophical positions taken behind them. Remember there are no right or wrong answers. 

To read our guide to philosophy, click here, and if you want to show your friends why philosophy is interesting, either share this article with them, or our article on why philosophy is interesting.

The Original Problem

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Before we look at the variations, we’re going to start with explaining the original problem. 

Imagine you’re driving a trolley car. A few meters in front of you are 5 workers. You realize the trolley car is broken and you can’t slow down the car. To save these workers, your only option is to switch tracks (that still works). The only issue is there’s one worker on the other track. 

Either you do nothing and kill 5 people with the trolley car, or you can deliberately switch tracks and kill one person. 

Before we get into what each of the actions mean, leave a comment down below what your choice is. Remember, there is no right or wrong answer!

Don’t Switch Tracks

Not switching tracks means the trolley car does end up hitting the 5 workers, however it also means you take a more deontological view of morality.

You didn’t switch tracks, which means none of your actions actually harmed anyone. (Yes, your lack of action did harm people, but since you didn’t act, your intentions didn’t actually harm anyone.)

Deontology focuses on the intentions behind actions, rather than the actual outcome. An action is morally correct if you had the intention of doing good, thus by switching tracks deliberately, you view the situation as if switching tracks means you deliberately kill someone, rather than the trolley hitting 5 people on accident.

Switch Tracks

Switching class means the 5 people on the track would be spared however, the one worker on the track would be hit. This shows that you have a more utilitarian view on morality. This means you believe the more lives that are saved the better; the goods of the many over the view.

But having switched tracks can be a dilemma in itself. Even though you saved more people which may seem “right” to you. Your actions now took a direct effect in taking the life of the one worker. When if you had let it stay on course, your actions wouldn’t have had a direct effect.

By choosing to switch tracks you chose that the lives of many were more important than the lives of one; with your actions having a direct effect. Would this make you a murderer? Would you be just as much of a murder if you didn’t change it? A worse one? Or do you believe that because there would be an inevitable death it can’t be your fault? 

Each decision you make has an effect and each leads to more questions. Now, we’ll take you into a different version of the trolly problem, with a similar fundamental system. 

The Doctor’s Office

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The next “trolley problem” is the Doctor’s Office variation. You still have the option to either save 5 people or save 1, except in this scenario, people are usually a little bit more hesitant to save the 5 people, even though it is still 5 vs 1.

You are a doctor, and you have 5 people who just came in and they are in desperate need of transplants. Let’s say they were the 5 people who got run over by a trolley car. You don’t have the needed organs to do the transplants, however there is one way you can save these 5 people.

There’s a young, healthy man in the waiting room. He’s probably there for a checkup, or for a loved one. The young man is taking a nap. You have the choice to either let the 5 people die, or you can kill the healthy person to save the 5 people. 

Once again, leave a comment down below what you would do. Just like the original problem, there’s no right or wrong answer!

Let Them Die 

Just like in the original problem, letting the 5 people die means you’re taking the deontological point of view. There isn’t anything you can do to save these 5 people, other than intentionally killing someone else.

The interesting thing about this problem is although the majority of people would choose to save 5 lives for 1 in the original problem, this is the scenario most people feel more comfortable choosing in this case.

It’s still 5 vs 1 life, however in this one, people feel less comfortable saving the 5 lives. Most people feel like in this case, people feel like taking the other life would mean deliberately taking a life. 

Of course, another side to this answer is the doctor’s code. If you don’t choose this option for the deontological answer, you’re likely choosing it for a more legal reason. 

Obviously, in this case, choosing to kill a healthy life to save 5 others who need transplants is illegal, however we aren’t looking at these problems through a legal standpoint, but a moral one, and there is a difference.

Save Them

Choosing to save them means you’re taking the utilitarian path. Your deciding the lives of 5 are more important than the lives of 1. Making a sacrifice to help the greater number of people.

Similar to the dilemma presented before in the utilitarian view point your once again making an active choice in the murder of someone. This time however, it’s even more hands on. 

Some people would have switched viewpoints from the original trolly problem to the doctors office version because of this. 

On the tracks, it was 5 healthy workers and 1 healthy worker. The only different element was the number of people. Now it is 5 dying people, verses 1 healthy person. Adding more mixed varalibes into the equation. 

However a lot of people’s answers will stay the same. It’s just a question of what you believe to be right.

A Further Dilemma

To make this problem even more problematic, let’s say whichever option you choose in either problems, the other group or individual has/is someone who you know will do something atrocious in the future. An example commonly cited is let’s say you know this individual is someone you for some reason know will become Hitler-level bad and commit a mass genocide. Or, you know they’re a murderer, or have committed an atrocious act. 

Now, let’s take a moment and wonder, what if one of the people was someone you know? A loved one? How is your answer different now that you know one of the individuals you didn’t choose to save is a family member or a close friend?

How would knowing either of these change your actions? Would it? Comment down below what you think you would do in these scenarios and follow us on all socials for more questions like these. If you want us to look into more variations of the trolley problems, leave a like and a comment, and also comment on any philosophical questions you want us to dive into! Thanks so much for reading and don’t forget to comment what you would do down below!  As always, keep on overachieving! 

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