It’s a classic thought problem in philosophy: An out-of-control trolly is headed down a track where it will hit and kill five people. You are in control of a lever which, if pulled, will divert the trolly to a track where it will only kill one person. Should you pull the lever?
The overwhelming majority of people answer yes. This seems straightforward enough. Of course killing is wrong, but killing through inaction is still killing, and surely it is better to kill (or let die) one rather than five. It’s the variations on this problem that provoke controversy.
Let’s say you’re in control of a hospital. There is a certain medication, curitol, that is very difficult to obtain, and you only have 100 units of it. You have 6 patients with reallysick-itis, all of whom will soon die if they do not receive treatment. One patient has a more advanced case than the others: This patient can be saved, but only with a mega-dose of 100 units of curitol. The other 5 patients require only a standard 20 unit dose each to fully recover. So you have enough curitol to either cure the one or the five, but not both. Do you split the curitol among the five, and allow the patient with the advanced case to die?
This differs from the trolly problem in that it deals with scarcity, one of the core concepts of economics. This makes it seem a little more realistic. It also presents a new option: You can “refuse to choose” by withholding the curitol from all six of them and allowing them all to die. We can imagine frameworks that would view this third option as “pure” and therefore better, but this is clearly worse – most people would still agree that the most moral choice is to cure the five.
One last example. Six passengers climb into a life boat to escape a sinking ship. They notice water sloshing overboard, and quickly realize the boat only has capacity for five. If they all stay on board, the boat will sink and they will all drown. Assume no one will voluntarily sacrifice themselves, but (for some reason) they all agree to follow whatever you, a neutral party, recommend. Do you tell them to throw someone overboard?
Still feeling confident about your answers? Now it’s time for part two: In the first two problems, there was only one potential martyr. In the life boat question, throwing any person overboard will save the others. Let’s say A is elderly and will only have a few years left anyway. B is a doctor and will be able to help out if anyone gets sick while adrift at sea. C is a convicted murderer, but is physically fit and can help set up camp if they get stranded on an island. D is a smoker and your best friend. E is a single parent and thinks that since D made the choice to take up smoking, that means D is ok with dying early and should not be spared at the expense of people who have made healthier choices. F is a foreigner, with ways different than our own. How do you choose who dies?
Feeling seasick yet? Good. No one should feel at ease with deciding whose lives are and are not worth sparing. But resources are scarce and tough choices have to be made, right? Nonetheless, I think there is a clear right answer:
Take turns swimming.
I didn’t come up with that the first time either. Once you’ve gotten used to the idea of killing-to-save, everything starts to look like a trolly problem. What if instead I had presented the life boat question first? What if I’d primed you with the idea that killing is always wrong? My hunch is that you would have been more likely to come up with an answer that involved no killing. Sometimes the question itself is wrong.
But what about the first two examples? What about when there really is a choice to be made between lives? Don’t we need a framework for evaluating those situations?
I claim that this, like “which person do you throw overboard”, is the wrong question to ask. In a real-life version of the trolly problem, there would be countless confounding variables. Maybe the five are more likely to realize the danger in time to move, since they can warn each other. Maybe the trolly’s brakes are only partially broken and it will stop in time, but not if we switch the track. We can theorize all day about how to estimate those parameters and make an educated guess as to the objectively optimal response. But by the time we’ve done that, the situation will probably have already played out.
We need heuristics for when we don’t have the time or the information to make perfect predictions. And even when we have time and information, it turns out humans are really bad at rational decisionmaking. Even if utilitarianism produces the best outcomes, it is folly to think we can be or create the idealized rational decisionmakers required by that framework. I claim that a form of virtue ethics, arrived at through moral absolutist/Kantian/deontological reasoning, is more likely to produce good outcomes in a consequentialist sense.
Humans are creatures of habit. In a pinch, we’re going to go with our gut. I think we should focus on making sure the moral habits we fall back on are good. So in answer to the trolly problem, I say don’t pull the lever. Don’t even consider killing to save as an option. Scream and warn the workers. If they’re tied down, try to untie them. If I’m on the trolly, try to fix the breaks. Even if we fail in a particular scenario, we build the habit of treating people as ends and not means instead of the habit of treating life as disposable. The real world has more life boat problems than trolly problems. We must not become so good at choosing between evils that we miss the opportunities to choose good instead.
Note: I did not invent the life boat example or the swimming solution, but I don’t remember where I first heard it and I wasn’t able to find it on