Trolley: No Happy Endings

Ryan Heshmati

April 22, 2022

Two tracks, a runaway trolley, and six lives are at the center of this ethical dilemma first proposed by English philosopher Philippa Foot. In the scenario, a runaway trolley is going down a track, which has five individuals tied onto the track. There is, however, a fork in the track, and a lever within reach of you, a pedestrian, that can switch the trolley’s wheels onto a second track, with only one person tied to it. The question is binary, would you pull the lever?

Proponents of utilitarianism, the school of thought with the belief the consequences of an action are what determine whether or not it is morally acceptable, argue the lever must be pulled. After all, it is five lives versus one, How could there be any other answer? One can easily draw a connection to the view “the ends justify the means,” which throughout history has proven to be a dangerous view to subscribe to. Another argument would be that the omission bias, where people view inaction with negative effects as better than action with negative effects, is an error in human judgment. Essentially, this further ties into the perspective that results are, in the end, what matter. Believers of this argument claim by doing nothing, one is allowing the deaths of five people, which makes them responsible, despite the fact they did not actually tie the people up. 

On the other hand, some argue that it is not a choice between killing five lives or killing one, it is rather the choice between killing none or one. Those five people, had the passerby decided not to go on a walk that day, were already guaranteed death, and whoever tied them up would be the killer. Inaction in this case would have the same result. Pulling the lever, alternatively, is saving five people, but it is also killing one, one who would have survived had the course of events continued uninterrupted. In essence, the argument boils down to, the passerby is in no scenario responsible for the five deaths, but pulling the lever directly implicates them in that one death. Put simply, killing one person is morally unacceptable, while inaction is acceptable because it is not the direct cause of those five deaths. 

Regardless of who survives, it is also important to consider the psychological effects on all involved. Survivor’s guilt is understandably a likely outcome of Trolley. If someone’s life is saved at the expense of others, even if they did not make the decision themselves, it could be so mentally devastating that they are driven to suicide. In the aftermath of the 2018 Stoneman Douglas School shooting, a survivor killed herself out of guilt. A week later, so did another. In choosing to save the lives of the five, one might actually, in the long run, kill all six.

While, for half a decade, the trolley problem remained nothing more than food for thought, the field of autonomous vehicles has reignited the argument, one that will have very real consequences soon. Questions must be answered as to whether protocols in self-driving software should prioritize the lives of pedestrians or passengers. How will Americans react to deaths directly caused by these protocols? Will the government take action to regulate the code, or will it be left to auto manufacturers to make their own decisions? All these questions are yet to be answered, but one thing is for certain, there are no winners in the Trolley Problem.