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The Trolley Problem

Imagine you're standing next to the tracks when you see an out-of-control trolley heading your way. Up ahead are five workers standing on the track, just far enough away that they can't hear you yelling. If you do nothing, they will all die. But next to you is a switch that will divert the trolley to another track. However, there is a worker standing on that track as well. Do you pull the switch?

Now imagine a second scenario: You're standing on a bridge overlooking the tracks. You see the trolley barrelling out of control toward the five workers, but there is no switch this time. Instead, there is a very large man standing next to you. If you push him off the bridge onto the track he will stop the trolley, saving the lives of the five workers. Do you push him?

Most people would flip the switch but not push the man onto the track. But why? From a utilitarian perspective, both scenarios are identical: You're sacrificing one person to save five. What is the difference between the two scenarios?

It may be that, in the second scenario, the other person is not already standing on the tracks. Perhaps people are less likely to take an action that will directly harm another person than one that will cause harm only indirectly. Or perhaps it's because the large man is standing right next to you. Were the circumstances slightly different, you might be the one pushed to the tracks. Or maybe it's because people recognize the absurdity of the story, and simply can't say yes to the scenario. Some psychologists have suggested that the trolley problem is too abstract to be useful.

But when the trolley problem was originally proposed in 1967 by by Philippa Foot, it was not merely an abstract scenario. Foot considered real-life applications of what she called the double effect, such as denying treatment to a critically ill cancer patient, or performing an abortion to save the mother's life. Is it ethical to kill a terminally ill person to harvest their body parts for transplants, or must we wait until the person dies naturally? Should we judge a person equally guilty if they can't provide enough food for their child as if they stab the child?

And if we broaden the question to a societal scale, how do we answer? Is a society that does not prevent childhood starvation any better than a society that lets murderers go unpunished? Perhaps the trolley problem says more about us than we want to admit.

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