How Trolley Problems Work


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hi, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark, a staff writer here at HowStuffWorks.com. And with me, as always is my trusty editor, Chris Pollette and his fantastic goatee. Chris, today, I want to talk about how the trolley problem works, very cool article that I wrote and you edited. So do you want to give some background on the trolley problem? What is it?

Chris Pollette: Well, it's every San Franciscan's worst nightmare. Imagine if you will, there's an out of control trolley, speeding down the tracks. And if nothing stops it, then it's going to go out of control. It's going to flip and kill the people on board.

Josh Clark: Five people, right?

Chris Pollette: Five or fifteen, it could be fully loaded. Who knows? But the problem is these people are going to die unless you do something to stop it. But it's a speeding trolley. What are you going to do? Until you notice that the track has a switch in it, and that you could actually switch the track with this lever that you happen to be standing next to, well that's great right? You're going to switch it to another track. You're going to save the lives of people on the trolley because it's going to give them a chance to slow down and stop, except there's somebody on that other track. And if you pull that switch and save the lives of all the people on the trolley, then it will kill this other man. So it's an ethical dilemma. What do you do?

Josh Clark: It is an ethical dilemma, and there's a second part. What's the second part?

Chris Pollette: Well the second part is this. There is not switch. There is just one track with an out of control trolley and several people on it who are going to die, unless you do something. Next to you stand a person, probably not a diminutive person. It would have to be somebody big enough to stop a trolley. But if you push them in front of the trolley, onto the tracks, then you could stop the trolley, by slowing it down, but obviously, the trolley would run over this person and kill them.

Josh Clark: Dead as a doornail.

DChris Pollette: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Dead as Cisco.

Chris Pollette: So what do you do? Do you sacrifice one life for many?

Josh Clark: That is an excellent question and it's one that's been plaguing people since it was first produced in the 60s. This philosophical problem, it shows the distinction between allowing to die, which is pulling that lever and sending the man on the auxiliary track to his death and actually, actively killing somebody, which is pushing the less than diminutive man in front of the trolley. What would you do, Chris? You personally, would you pull the lever?

Chris Pollette: You know it's one of those situations where you never know what you're really going to do until you're actually thrust in that situation. And it's easy to say one way or the other, based on I've got all the time in the world to make the decision. Sitting right here, right now, I would say yes, I would sacrifice one person's life for the people on the trolley. But there's always the option of standing there horrified and watching it all happen and then realizing afterward that it was too late.

Josh Clark: Would you push the man in front of the trolley?

Chris Pollette: That is much, much tougher because then I would actively be killing somebody to save the lives of someone else. I saw another article since this has been published that suggested there are many ethical dilemmas like this. It's funny how the study of these kinds of questions has exploded in colleges and universities. And I saw this additional one where what would happen if you had a trap door and you could drop the person to his death instead of actually pushing him on the tracks. I don't know if I could actually kill somebody to save the lives of someone else. If it was an act of saving a group of people and it was a passive thing, it would be much easier than if it was active.

Josh Clark: Your response has actually pretty much fall in step with the majority of people. Most people answer that they would pull the lever; ergo they are okay with dispatching someone to their death, as long as they don't have to get their hands dirty. Most people draw the line at pushing the large man in front of the trolley. And I can understand that. But what that talks about, what that discloses is our society's view of utilitarianism now. Doesn't it make sense that under any circumstance, you push one man to his death to save five or 15? You've saved four more than you've taken. It just makes sense. But we draw the line at that and we've actually developed - we've used that kind of philosophical view to develop rules in our society, take for example transplant patients. If you have somebody who likes to beat up kittens and they have a bunch of great organs, why don't we just kill those people, take their organs and deliver them to five people who don't beat up kittens? It's these kinds of dilemmas that we're faced with every day. And thank God for philosophies is all I have to say. Read how the trolley problem works on HowStuffWorks.com.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.