What’s a Philosophy Blog without a Trolley Problem, Anyway?

Image Source: Alyssa’s HAS233 Site

The Trolley Problem (explanation linked here), a popular thought experiment invented by English philosopher Philippa Foot, has this basic premise:

You are watching a train that has no brakes. If the train continues on the track it is currently on, it will hit five civilians working on tracks. However, there is a lever in front of you, and if you pull it the train will change tracks and hit only one civilian working on the other track. The train is going to hit people either way, but it’s up to you whether it hits one or five.

(Now, there are some variations of this dilemma where you personally know someone on one of the tracks, or you know that one of the people is a criminal, but for now let’s just assume you don’t know anyone on the tracks.)

On the one hand, you should pull the lever so you can save the most people. In comparison to five deaths, one death produces the most net happiness. On the other hand, if fate should have it that the train is going to hit the five people on the first track, who are you to mess with that? Who are you to say that one person doesn’t deserve to live as much as anyone in the group of five people?

While both convincing arguments, I believe this dilemma boils down to the role of the bystander.

If I watch someone get shot without jumping in front of the bullet myself, am I therefore committing just as bad of a crime as the person shooting the gun? No, right? So, in the same sense, watching five people die is not the same as pulling a lever to deliberately kill one person.

Ultimately, while I believe that being a bystander in many situations is wrong in its own way, it is usually not the same thing as actually committing the crime yourself. Crimes often come out of a place of hatred and anger, while bystanding often comes out of a place of fear for your own safety. They stem from different emotions, and therefore the intent behind the action is different.

So, although watching five people die and doing nothing to stop it might be wrong, if the only way to stop it is to deliberately kill someone else, this is arguably worse than being a bystander and watching the five people die. Thus, I would not pull the lever.

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Rachel Hendrix

Rachel Hendrix

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