The Trolley Problem Explained
Students offer their answers to the trolley problem
You’re standing in between two different railroad tracks, with the lever controlling the train’s direction firmly grasped in your hands. The sudden shriek of a whistle interrupts your thoughts. An out-of-control, unmanned train is barreling down the tracks, and it will reach the intersection in minutes. It is currently heading towards a group of five people who are standing in the middle of the track. If the train continues on its current course, they will have no way of avoiding the trolley in time. However, on the other set of tracks, another man is standing. Do you refuse to pull the lever and allow five people to perish, or do you pull the lever and sacrifice that one person’s life in exchange for the continuation of five others?
This is known as the Trolley problem, a popular philosophical question which challenges the principles of ethics and the value of human life. Though there are many variations to the variables present in the situation, it all boils down to the same thing: which choice results in the greatest subjective good.
In order to understand the underlying foundations of the problem, president of Philosophy Club senior Nicholas Chen explains that there are two general modes of thought that are used to answer this question. The utilitarian viewpoint advocates for pulling the lever because it saves the greatest amount of lives. The opposing deontological view advocates for not pulling the lever since pulling the lever would be akin to committing murder, which is intolerable regardless of context or justification. Chen’s personal take on the issue favors the deontological view in some regards.
“If I were put in that situation, I wouldn’t pull the lever,” Chen said. “Without the necessary knowledge to determine the moral value of either choice, I don’t have any right to make that decision.”
However, Chen believes that knowing the identities of the people involved would make the problem obsolete, since deciding the “worth” of their lives would be easy
Speech and Debate Public Forum Captain senior Grace Zhou’s view on the problem is mainly influenced by her position on the team.
“Public Forum is an event that’s very straightforward in terms of evidence and how you do stuff,” Zhou said. “The weighing is very simple, if one side happens to prove that it saves more lives, or has the overall more economic or net benefit, whatever those may be, then that side ultimately wins.”
Zhou says that, from a strict debate perspective, she would not pull the lever, saving 5 lives in return for the loss of one. She agrees with Chen in saying that knowing the moral compass of the people involved would oversimplify the problem.
As captain of the Lincoln-Douglas section of the Speech & Debate team, junior Anisha Sinha has experience in dealing with this kind of philosophical conundrum. Lincoln-Douglas specializes in debating philosophical topics with moral cores. When Sinha teaches the LD style of debate to newcomers, there are two things that she thinks is important to remember: one’s values and the criteria by which they are defined and measured. Sinha gives the examples of autonomy, where people have rights that must be preserved at all times, and utilitarianism, which involves acting to benefit the majority of people. Sinha thinks that even though autonomy is a valid concept, it is hard to debate and gain the empathy of judges to that side.
“If you go down to the idea of autonomy and individualism, then it’s hard to give an answer to that,” Sinha said. “Even if you’re saving that one life, you’re killing five other lives, so they usually don’t like talking about that scenario.”
If forced to take a side on the issue, Sinha would most likely pull the lever and save five lives. But, she is unable to take a firm stance in the end because of her own value system.
“There’s still the idea that a human has an infinite amount of worth, and without knowing a story, or even by knowing a story . . .,” Sinha said. “As just another human, you can’t make a decision on someone’s life and whether they should have the right to live or not in that situation. So I can’t take a firm stance, but I would try to save the most amount of people that I can.”