Imagine this: You’re standing at a switch controlling the tracks of a runaway trolley. The trolley is speeding towards five people tied to the tracks, but you have the power to flip the switch and divert the trolley onto another track. However, on this alternate track, there’s one person tied down. What do you do? Save the five people by sacrificing one? Or do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the original track?

Welcome to the Trolley Problem, a classic thought experiment on ethics and decision-making. Throughout this blog post, we’ll dive into the origins of the Trolley Problem, explore the ethical implications it presents, and discuss the relevance of this philosophical dilemma in the modern world.

A Brief History of the Trolley Problem


The Trolley Problem was first introduced in 1967 by British philosopher Philippa Foot. She gave the world this perplexing scenario as part of a larger exploration of consequentialism, an ethical theory arguing that the moral value of an action depends entirely on its consequences.

Since then, the Trolley Problem has been a subject of fierce debate among philosophers and ethicists alike, sparking countless variations and offshoots (such as the “Fat Man” and the “Loop Track” scenarios). These scenarios all share a similar theme: the necessity of choosing between the lesser of two evils. For a deeper dive into the Trolley Problem and its variations, check out our post on The Trolley Problem Unraveled.

The Ethical Dilemma: Consequentialism vs. Deontology

At its core, the Trolley Problem presents a collision between consequentialism and deontology, two dominant ethical theories in philosophy.

As mentioned earlier, consequentialism holds that an action’s moral value lies in its consequences. According to this theory, one should choose to flip the switch and save the five people at the cost of one, as the overall outcome is better. To learn more about consequentialism, read our explainer on Utilitarianism.

On the other hand, deontology is an ethical theory asserting that some moral rules should be followed regardless of the consequences. A deontologist might argue that flipping the switch actively involves you in the situation, making you responsible for the death of the one person. In contrast, not flipping the switch maintains your moral innocence as you did not play a direct role in the harm that occurs. For more on deontological ethics, check out our post on Deontological Ethics: Duty, Morality, and the Philosophy of Right Action.

The Trolley Problem in Real Life

While the Trolley Problem might seem like a far-fetched hypothetical, it has significant implications on real-world decision-making. Assessing the moral weight of the consequences and rules behind our actions is a critical part of navigating complex ethical situations.

Take, for example, the development of autonomous vehicles. These machines need to be equipped to make split-second decisions in various moral dilemmas. How should a self-driving car react if swerving to avoid hitting a pedestrian might result in a collision that endangers the passenger?

Furthermore, doctors, politicians, and other decision-makers often face ethical dilemmas where they must weigh the potential harm of their choices. The Trolley Problem provides a valuable point of discussion for understanding the moral decision-making process.

What Can We Learn From the Trolley Problem?

As the world continues to grow in complexity, understanding the ethical implications of our decisions becomes increasingly important. The Trolley Problem, despite its peculiar origins, stands as a valuable lesson in examining the moral weight of our choices.

By grappling with the complexities of the Trolley Problem, we can sharpen our understanding of morality and ethics, equipping us to make better decisions in real-life situations. In the grand scheme of things, the Trolley Problem gives us a unique opportunity to explore the depths of our own moral compass and grapple with the profound question: when faced with a difficult choice, what is the right thing to do? For a comparative analysis of consequentialism and deontology, read our post on Utilitarianism and Deontology: The Ethics of Consequence.


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