Why I am not a fan of Trolley Problems

My first introduction to philosophy was as a ten-year old, being posed the trolley problem. A train hurtles towards five unaware people on a railway line. The only way to save them is to flip a switch, and divert the train down another section of track – which will kill an innocent bystander. So, do you do nothing and allow the five people to die? Or do you flip the switch and save the five, but in so doing kill one person?

Some people think this is an interesting hypothetical – drawing the lines between our actions and inactions, deontology and consequentialism, etc. I think it’s deeply retarded, in three important ways. And I think it’s retarded in ways that go to the heart of much thinking on morality, fairness, and politics.

The Politics of Division

Firstly, the question does not illuminate, it merely divides. Ethics is of course not a science, because true experimentation is impossible. Science tells us how the world is, but cannot tell us how it ought to be. It can inform our moral choices, but it cannot determine them. If we consider the question of abortion, science can, in theory, tell us at what stage a foetus becomes viable. But if you disagree that viability is the relevant threshold for the permissibility of abortion, there is no experiment that can contradict you.

In the absence of true experimentation, one method of ethical enquiry is the thought experiment, of which the trolley problem is one. The purpose of a thought experiment is to clarify our thinking, and to proceed from easier questions to harder one. To return to the abortion example above, we might agree that infanticide is immoral. What then, we might ask, is the relevant difference between a newborn baby, and that same baby one hour before birth? And what difference between that baby and one hour earlier? And hence we might equate late-term abortion to infanticide, and so to be immoral.

Therefore a good thought experiment will be one where biting the bullet causes psychic pain to most people. There will always be someone willing to take the opposite side, no matter how outrageous – for example here Robin Hanson says that a doctor has a duty to rape his patients if he thinks it will help them. But hopefully we can get consensus on the thought experiment, and so proceed to solve harder problems. This is particularly important for applied ethics – i.e. law, which in a democracy must rest on consensus.

Unfortunately, the trolley problem is a terrible thought experiment in these terms. Switch-flippers say that they’re saving five people and killing one, so that’s a surplus of four. Non-flippers say that you can’t murder one person to save five. There are large groups on both sides, both entirely happy on their own terms, and all we have done is create two groups, each condemning the other. From a flipper point of view, non-flippers are “callous.” From a non-flipper point of view, flippers are “murderers.”

And of course, this is the state of modern democratic politics, where arbitrary questions are used not to illuminate but divide. The media at the moment is obsessed with the question “Are the coalition cuts going too far?” And so this provides large groups for and against, who can each yell at the other group, and talk among themselves about how the other side just aren’t serious/compassionate. A better question would be “Do you think it is sustainable for the UK to have a budget deficit of 15% of GDP?” Consensus answer: no. So how large a budget deficit can we run in the current climate? And what areas of spending do you want cut to get there? But the media is only interested in an emotional response, because that’s much easier to convey than a reasoned argument, and requires no facts.

The Politics of Ignorance

And this is the second problem with the trolley problem – it is arbitrary, and completely lacking in facts. Who are these people on the tracks, why are they there, and why are you at the controls? What is your relationship with the people? Why is the switch in its current position? What are the railway company’s procedures in such a situation? And so on. These are not irrelevant details around a central issue. These questions are the central issue.

For example, consider that the five people are maintenance workers, and the train was not supposed to go onto their part of the tracks. A saboteur has snuck onto the railway and flipped the switch so as to kill them. He is now making his escape down the other section of the track. Were you to flip the switch, you would be restoring the status quo ante, and only the would-be murderer would suffer.

Alternatively, consider that the five are trespassers – teenagers wandering on the tracks oblivious to the coming train. The other section of track is never used, and the person on it is a railway employee, who has good reason to think he is perfectly safe, and is trying to alert the five to the danger with a loudhailer – without success.

It’s not merely that we might give very different answers in these two cases. It’s that these cases present very different ways of thinking about the problem. Now, the kind of person who would pose such a fatuous hypothetical will no doubt object that you don’t have all this information, that you simply have to go on what you know. But how about the question of why I am at the controls? I must know that. What is my relationship to these people? I must know that. And so on. Suppose I am a friend of the five who has been sent to flip the switch to kill the one. Does that put a colour on my actions?

The Politics of Indifference

And this is the final problem with the trolley problem – implicit is the idea that all six potential victims are strangers, that I am supremely disinterested, and that I am the decider. This is, of course, highly unrealistic – but it’s also the way progressives like to think about politics. To suppose oneself to be eternally wise and powerful, and place oneself in a position of life and death over others, with no need for their consent or approval – what could be more dangerous? But that is not enough for the creator of the trolley problem, because then you as decision maker are stripped of all context and relationship with your victims, and any prior history of decision making.

In the related problem of “Cut-up Chuck,” a doctor has five patients who are near death. One needs a heart transplant, one a liver, and so on. The doctor performs a routine check-up on a new patient, Chuck, who is in perfect health. The doctor notices that Chuck is a donor match for the patients, and so he kills Chuck and transplants the heart to one, the liver to another, and so on, saving five lives by killing one. Is it OK to murder Chuck for the greater good?

Almost everyone will recoil in moral horror from this proposition, yet the logic of it is identical to the utilitarian logic that many are happy to embrace in the trolley problem. So what makes the difference? Firstly, we have named our victim. Rather than our consequences being inflicted on some unknown, nameless other, they are inflicted on a real human being. Secondly, we are not asked to place ourselves in the shoes of the doctor. You are probably not a doctor, but you have been a patient, so you are more likely to identify with Chuck going for his check-up than the doctor killing him. Whereas in the trolley problem it is specifically you in charge of the points. This is dangerous, and unrealistic. The life-and-death decisions in our society are taken by a small group of self-selecting people, not the populace at large. And finally, the perpetrator is given some positive relation to the victim. The doctor is there to help Chuck, not murder him and parcel out his organs. But so too, the points operator is supposed to look after people, not kill them.

A more honest way to pose the trolley problem, or indeed any ethical problem, is to make the audience aware of the costs. Suppose your son was walking down a safe section of track, and a points manager saw him there and diverted a train out of its way without warning. Your son was obliterated. But it’s all for the best, says the points operator, because otherwise the train would have hit five people. Really, I saved four lives. Would you try to have the manager prosecuted for murder?

Some will accuse me of loading the question with emotion. But that’s entirely the point. That person who you would kill when you flip the switch is undoubtedly someone’s son or daughter. Our actions are have real world consequences, and when we empathise with the decision-makers not the victims, it is almost always an excuse to commit horrible crimes. It is listening to Tony Blair whine about “the hardest decision of my life” while paying no attention to the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis dead as a result of his adventurism. It is Sharon Shoesmith, it is John Yoo, it is every crime where the perpetrators are the bureaucrats and the victims are the poor and marginalised. In short, it is modern, “progressive” politics.

And I am not a fan.


One response to this post.

  1. […] this is not how many people approach moral questions. Consider this solution to the trolley problem, which I must have heard a million times: The best result is the one that maximises utility. If I […]


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