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The Trolley Problem

I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR yesterday evening and heard Michael Gazzaniga refer to The Trolley Problem. For some reason this kind of experiment really interested me so I wanted to share.

Basically, it’s a test to see how people respond to ethical issues.

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

Well, this is an interesting question. Do you let one die to save five? Ponder that for a few minutes… and then move on to the second part.

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Well? If you decided it was ok for one to die to save five then what do you think about this one where you actually have to push the fat man? Is it different? What do you think?

5 comments to The Trolley Problem

  • daphne

    my first thought is… I really can’t kill someone! but if it was me being tied, I’ll save the 5 by dying… It’s like what the wiki article says “the better option”

  • daphne

    Oh forgot to add… in 2nd part, why the (*@# did fat man stand there?! But it got me thinking. Just makes me feel like I want to do neither! It reminds me of the boat scene in Dark Knight on the boat thing… I am sure you know which part I am talking about because I don’t want to elaborate as someone who didn’t watch it might read. Well anyway, that scene just reminded me of this thing you posted here… Sometimes the solutions may not always be the correct one.

  • Ahhh, but that’s not the question! Hehe. You don’t get the choice of heroically sacrificing yourself for the other five. You only can choose if the one person dies or the five.

    So if you really can’t kill someone then you’ll let the 5 die by not doing anything. It’s certainly not an easy choice and one I hope none of us ever has to make.

  • You’re right about the Dark Knight scene though. It is somewhat similar although not the same. When forced to make a choice though — you have to do something — even if your choice is to do nothing.

  • daphne

    Hmmmm yeah that is true. I want to be a hero though! But anyway, that isn’t the point. It’s just really hard to choose. In the case of the 2nd, as I read more of the wiki article, it showed that you intentionally have to kill the fat man to save 5(although some might argue that killing the fat man doesn’t make a difference since he is so fat he eventually WILL die :P) but to sacrifice one’s live without they intending to is not fair to them. If I was the fat man, I may not want to die to save the 5, and then I get pushed, wth!?

    It’s really hard to make such judgment and choose who lives and who dies. I don’t think I can but that is why I am human.

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