I remember reading about the trolley problem and discarding it as something I didn’t need to worry my ‘pretty little head’ about. I must inform the reader that I have only now begun to make sense of my life; prior to now I only existed.
The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics.The general form of the problem is this: There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:
- Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
- Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the most ethical choice?
Now, I am sure the first time readers will have the answer on the tip of their tongue; I too had a response which can only be described as arrogant today. Why is this predicament considered an ethical dilemma? I mean, people will die anyway, right? You only need to decide how many.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. The choice you have to make is to either become the decision maker in this terribly complex situation or be the bystander. Both will be responsible for at least one person’s death.
Nevertheless, the loss of one life is always better than 5, right? This is where one must familiarise oneself with the ideas of Deontology and Consequentialism. They could be translated as ‘determined by duty or laws’ and ‘the ends justify the means’. Ergo, if one makes the decision to save 5 by forgoing 1 then they act by the ethical system of Deontology, and if they refrain from making that decision then they are following the philosophy of Consequentialism.
Now that we have had time to think not just about ‘what will we do’, but also about ‘what will happen if we do’, this choice does not look so easy. Like I said in one of my other posts, what we do is not limited to us; it is indeed a butterfly effect.
With just a little more thought, it becomes clear that pulling that lever will not just result in 5 > 1 but also the consequence of our otherwise mathematically accurate action. It took me a long while to ruminate over this one, I couldn’t just refuse to answer, it poses a serious moral question.
I kept hopping and skipping over the two choices and felt disappointed that I was wary of making this decision. I had always believed that I can take responsibility; I can stand by what I do. As a young girl, I was told that aside from getting a good opinion of me from everyone, all other things are attainable, so ‘go fetch’.
Well, I took a while to realise that I don’t want everything; there are only a few battles I want to fight. In a situation like this one, I would most likely panic; at the most scream for help. I will support whoever wants to make that decision but I would sooner pull out my hair than pull the lever.
No matter how intrinsically good our motives are, no matter how morally correct our conduct was, this decision just can’t be made so systematically, it’s called a dilemma for this reason. Both choices are equally unattractive.