The trolley problem is a thought experiment first developed in 1967 by Oxford moral philosopher Philippa Foot also called as "Philippa foot trolley problem".
In an essay entitled "The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect,"
Miss Foot wrote: 5 men work on his one track and 1 man on another. Anyone hit by a tram on a platform must be killed.
And so, the trolley problem was born. (It should be noted that Foot presented this thought experiment as one of his many others.
It's not clear why it received so much attention from the philosophical and scientific community.
In 1976, after 9 years of the Trolley Problem, American philosopher Judith J. Thomson wrote an essay titled "Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem."
In it she presents a second version of the trolley problem and makes it even more interesting:
“George is on a footbridge over the trolley tracks.
He knows trolleys, and can see that the one approaching the bridge is out of control. On the track back of the bridge there are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time.
George knows that the only way to stop an out-of-control trolley is to drop a very heavy weight into its path.
But the only available, sufficiently heavy weight, is a fat man, also watching the trolley from the footbridge.
George can shove the fat man onto the track in the path of the trolley, killing the fat man; or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five die.” Thomson's second scenario, The Fat Man and the Pedestrian Bridge, is considered an integral part of the trolley problem in modern ethics and is included in almost every account of thought experiments.
After all, the second scenario makes the problem interesting and incredibly perplexing.
Various Solutions to Trolley Problem
When first presented with the Trolley Problem, many people tend to consider the various ways in which the obvious tragedies, namely the death of one or five individuals, depending on one's preference, could be avoided entirely.
In a real-world scenario, for example, one might be able to warn the workers on the tracks of the approaching trolley, hoping that they will move and save their own lives.
That, however, would be missing the point of the thought experiment.
The Trolley Problem presents a moral quandary in which one must decide whether to steer the trolley in the first scenario or to push the fat man off the footbridge in the second, so that only one person dies rather than five.
Those are the only alternatives.
So, what should one do?
Foot's own answer to the trolley problem was that the morally justifiable action would be to manipulate the trolley into killing one of his workers and saving four lives.
To illustrate this lesson, she distinguished between "negative obligations" and "positive obligations."
Broadly speaking, she defined negative duty as the duty not to harm others, and positive duty as the duty to actively do good, in this case the duty to save lives.
She argued that our negative obligations to do no harm always take precedence and outweigh positive obligations.
With this line of reasoning, we can say that Foot's version of the trolley problem represents a conflict between two negative obligations.
In other words, a car driver can ask, "Is it my duty to keep one person out of harm's way, or is it my duty to keep him out of five?"
And the answer, according to Foot, is obviously the latter, since it leads to less harm. However, in the pedestrian bridge scenario, we face a conflict between negative and positive obligations.
That is, the negative duty of not harming the fat man on the footbridge, and the positive duty of protecting the lives of his five workers on the footbridge.
Save your track.
In this case, Foot argues that it is morally unjust because he must seriously harm (actually kill) the fat man on the footbridge in order to save the lives of five workers. Thompson saw it differently.
She agreed with Foot on what constitutes morally good conduct, but disagrees on why it should behave as it does.
In Thomson's view, the real difference is "redirecting a threat from a large group to a small group" and "allowing another threat to affect a small group."
Under this premise, she argued, it was morally justifiable to point the carts at the trucks the workers were on.
And pushing a fat man off a footbridge is morally unjust because it poses a whole new threat to him.
I have argued that humans should not be used.
Others question the idea that there is a moral obligation to minimize harm or cause as few deaths as possible.
But the question remains: What is the solution to the trolley problem?
No solution, no problem
I think the answer is that there is no definitive solution.
Like most philosophical problems, the trolley problem was not designed to have a solution.
Rather, it aims to create an intellectual discourse that stimulates thought, recognizes the difficulty of resolving moral dilemmas, and recognizes our limitations as moral agents.
The work-in-progress discourse is not itself a solution discourse.
In the end, there are only two possible courses of action for both problem scenarios, but the one that emphasizes why.
This does not mean that all opinions on the trolley issue are completely valid.
We need to recognize that problems and moral dilemmas have more or less defensible solutions, and that they can only be reached through reason and rational reasoning.
As we saw in Foot-Thomson's matching of correct answers, most of us differ only in why he chooses one solution to the trolley problem.
Most people agree with the solution.
This has kept the trolley problem alive among philosophers for nearly 50 years. I don't think there is a perfect solution to the trolley problem, nor a consensus about the best solution.
All we can hope, and I have argued, all we should hope is to continue this discourse, using the tools of philosophy as much as the scientific method.
Thanks for reading…