The Trolley (Non-)Problem

There is a semi-famous ‘problem’ (ethical dilemma) in philosophy known as the Trolley Problem. (A trolley is a light rail passenger train, for any non-North Americans.) Wiki:  It has many formulations, and many alternatives (including planes, mothers versus strangers, etc), but the most common dilemma that I’ve come across is outlined in this video:

In brief, the problem encompasses two (supposedly-ethically-equivalent) scenarios. In scenario 1, a trolley is hurtling toward five railroad workers. Serendipitously, you happen to be right by the rail switch to move the trolley off of its path; unfortunately, the alternative path still has a single worker on it. There is no time to warn anyone involved, but there is just enough time to divert the train to kill the single worker instead of the five.

The second scenario as shown in the video is slightly different; instead of finding yourself at the switch, you are on a footbridge overlooking the tracks, and beside you is a very rotund person–heavy enough that you’re certain s/he can stop the train before it collides with the unsuspecting workers. Should you push this person from the footbridge, thereby saving workers at the expense of the bystander?

It turns out that most people decide to pull the lever, condemning the one worker over five, while almost everyone refuses to sacrifice the bystander. From a so-called utilitarian perspective, as the video notes, the scenarios are exactly the same: you’re trading one life for four. Therefore the split decision offers cognitive scientists and ethicists an interesting insight into most people’s way of thinking.

Except it really doesn’t. The two scenarios are very different, ethically and materially. The most obvious objection to the dilemma is that the second scenario is physically impossible, and therefore easier for people to reject (even if they seriously entertain it). Any person obese enough to stop a light rail car would be unable to stand on a pedestrian footbridge, or even get out of her/his house, if indeed the human body were physically capable of acquiring sufficient mass. Therefore the second scenario is impractical, which might predispose people against seriously considering it, even if they think they’re giving it equal weight.

I prefer a more practical revision of scenario 2. Imagine you stand with a strantger on a footbridge near a bend in the rail lines. On your right, you see an oncoming trolley, and somewhat further past the bend you see a gang of workers on the tracks. The workers are out of hearing range, but the bend is too close to them for the conductor to react in time to slow the train. However, you judge that if you push the person beside you onto the trolley’s path, the conductor will be forced to apply the brakes short of the bend, which will stop the train before it reaches the workers. Should you follow through on this impulse, and save the five lives at the cost of a seemingly-innocent bystander?

This scenario has a much better chance of coming up at some point in time than the obese one. (We can discuss whether the formulators of the problem thought that the bystander’s extra weight would make her/his life less valuable to others another time.) But I contend that it is still ethically very different than the first scenario, and one can make diverging choices in each without contradiction (either to utilitarianism or to philosophy in general).

My contention rests upon the circumstances of the potential victims. In the first scenario (with six workers in the balance and a switch), every potential victim has knowingly put themselves at risk of the very scenario that’s unfolding. By agreeing to work on a rail line, a railworker has tacitly acknowledged that there is a slight but non-negligible risk of dying in a train accident–a much higher risk than one accepts simply by being in a train’s vicinity. If such a risk were unacceptable to a worker (as it is unacceptable to me), s/he would have pursued a different avenue of employment in the first place.

Therefore, in scenario 1, the proper ethical response is to minimize harm amongst the people who’ve assumed equal risk. I think that this is the appropriate utilitarian solution, as well. Since the single worker has agreed, by the very nature of her/his employment, that getting run over by a train is an acceptable (if small) risk in the run of a career, it is acceptable to trade the one life for five. Most people feel this sense of equal risk instinctively, and so can make the decision to alter the natural course of events to minimize overall damage.

In contrast, the scenario I painted is very different in terms of who’s assumed which risks. The workers have still agreed to the danger of death-by-trolley by the very nature of their working on the railroad. Yet the only agreement that the pedestrians have made is with the engineers of the footbridge, that it was competently-constructed and is well-maintained. Indeed, unless s/he were suicidal, one can assume that taking the bridge means the pedestrian is *less* willing to assume the risk of getting mangled to death by a train than s/he might have done–s/he did not elect to cross the tracks directly, after all.

Therefore the ethical balance has changed. Rather than minimizing harm amongst the commonly-consenting workers, sacrificing an ‘innocent’ (in terms of assumed risk) bystander presumably against her/his will is simply not fair; saving people who’ve assumed risk at the cost of people who’ve assumed none (or at least substantially less) is intuitively unethical to most people out of hand. (See the massive protests against the recent bank bailouts, which drove people of all political stripes to the streets–the Tea Party and OWS being the most obvious examples of this.)

Accepting the trade-off in the first scenario while rejecting it in the second is not antithetical to utilitarianism–at worst, the decision path is orthogonal to it. A world in which one is forced to bear the consequences of unassumed risks, in preference to those who’ve already assumed the risk but are somehow seen as ‘more important’ by greater numbers or some other measure, is not a world which maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering. It would be a world wherein everyone guarded themselves against every conceivable risk in any given social interaction, which would have unimaginable consequences to human well-being.

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