During my commute today, I was listening to another episode of the “Philosophize This” podcast (no surprises there) and the host, Stephen West, brought up the trolley problem. This is one of my favourite ethical dilemmas and it is an interesting thought experiment. For those of you who don’t know what this is, I’ll explain it: Suppose that you are the conductor of an old trolley. There are 5 people stuck to the rails and if you continue operating the trolley the way you do it right now, those five people are going to get killed. The ONLY WAY for you to avoid that is to pull a lever and change tracks. However, there is one person stuck to the other track and if you go that way, you will kill that person. Now, what do you do? Do you continue in the same way and kill five people or do you pull the lever and kill one?
Now, let’s look at a slightly different scenario: You are on top of a bridge that is above the tracks. There are five people stuck to the tracks and a trolley is coming. The trolley is not able to stop in time and if you don’t do anything, those five people are going to get killed. However, there is someone sitting on the side of the bridge. The person sitting there is big enough that if you push him down the bridge and on to the tracks, he will be able to stop the train, but he will get killed. Would you do it?
Some people might say, “I will pull the lever in the first scenario, but I won’t push the guy in the second scenario, because I’m physically touching the guy in the second one and I’m directly killing him.” OK, I’ll ask it another way: Suppose there is a lever that will launch this guy on to the tracks, would you pull that lever then, since you are not physically touching the person? And, as if it is not complicated yet, let me introduce a third version of this dilemma: You are a doctor and you are caring for five people in the ward. Each one of them has an organ that is failing and if they don’t receive a transplant soon, all five of them are going to die. A healthy person walks into your office for a routine checkup. This person is a match for all five of those people. Would you open him up and use his organs to save those five people, which would mean killing him in the process?
By now, some of you might have already given up on doing anything about any of these scenarios, because you say “I don’t want to be responsible for someone’s death.” However, you might want to consider the fact that by being in those situations, whether you do something or sit there and watch, you are responsible for the results of your action(s) (or inaction(s) for that matter). Five people might get killed because you didn’t do anything or one person may get killed because you did something. By the very nature of you being in those situations, you are somehow responsible for what happens.
There are really not a lot of differences between these three scenarios. You are saving five people by sacrificing one. However, let me introduce another twist. What if that one person, if alive, will go on to develop a vaccine that will save millions of people from a contagious disease? Would your answer change to any of those questions? What happens is that we, most often, judge a situation by the consequences we think are going to happen. We might think the lives of five people are more important than the life of one or the life of someone who could develop a vaccine and save a lot of people is more important than someone who couldn’t, but how do we decide that? Almost always, we only have a limited account of what might happen and we decide based on that limited information. Maybe we think in terms of the contribution to society, but what constitutes a contribution and why more contribution to society is superior to less contribution, when there might be a myriad of other factors in play as well?
I know I opened a pandora’s box and posed more questions than I answered, but hopefully this would spark a conversation in your daily lives and in here as well. Please comment below if you have something to add. I would be happy to read your perspectives on this matter as well.