“A trolley is hurtling down the track toward five workers. You are standing next to a lever that allows you to switch the trolley to a different track, where there is one worker. If you don’t pull the lever, five workers die. If you do pull the lever, the one worker on the other track dies. Do you switch the tracks or not?”
This is the original version of the trolley problem [The Trolley Problem - YouTube], a classic ethical dilemma designed by philosopher Philippa Foot in the 1950s. It’s the question I like to pose to my Social Ethics students on the first day of class.
They have their own questions. Can I yell and warn the workers to jump off the track? Is there a chance the workers will survive being hit by the trolley? Can I sacrifice myself to save the workers? The answer to all these questions is No.
There’s no negotiating with the trolley problem. There’s no use pointing out that trains don’t work that way, or asking why the lever has been left unattended for morally conflicted high school students to pull (or not to pull).
You have to be a good sport about ethical dilemmas. They are, by design, far simpler than real-life moral quandaries. They are unrealistic, bizarre, and often grisly. The primary purpose of the trolley problem, and ethical dilemmas like it, is to help us examine and interrogate how we make moral choices. Asking why workers are on the tracks, or why you happen to be standing next to a track-switching lever, or how we can be sure the trolley will kill the workers on the track—it gets you nowhere. You have two options. Do you pull the level or not?
I write the students’ names vertically on the white board, then draw two columns to the right. I label the columns “Kill One” and “Let Five Die.” Might as well start with a bang.
Students go around the room answering the question, and I tally their answers on the board. Most choose “Kill One.” A few choose “Let Five Die.” This is how the original version of the trolley problem usually plays out. We discuss the reasoning behind their answers. For most students, it’s a mathematical calculation—five lives saved, one life lost. Tragic, of course, but the solution seems clear.
I draw another column on the board. Version 2. The same problem, with a small difference. Once again, there are five workers on the track, and if you don’t do something, the trolley will crush them. But this time, there’s no lever and no alternate track. There is just a big, tall, musclebound stranger standing next to you on a bridge above the track. His body would stop the trolley if he fell onto its path. He would die. The five workers would live. Do you push him?
Now that five-versus-one calculus feels different, even grotesque. Why? What makes it different, morally, than pulling the lever? And this gets us closer to the questions at the heart of the trolley problem: how do you weigh means and ends in moral decision-making? Is there a moral difference between doing harm and allowing harm? Why or why not? How do you know?
Later in the semester, we will study classical ethical frameworks and Catholic Social Teaching. We will wrestle with the ethics of real-world problems in all their urgency and complexity. But today I want students to start by asking themselves more fundamental questions about themselves as moral thinkers and moral agents.
We run through a third version—let five strangers die, or pull the lever and kill your best friend?—and class is almost over. For our closing activity, I turn on the projector and queue up the trolley problem clip [The Trolley Problem | The Good Place | Comedy Bites - YouTube] from The Good Place. “All right,” I say, “how do yall feel about fake blood?”