Imagine that you are walking through a railroad yard and you happen to see a runaway train.



week 2 Discussion - The Dreaded Trolley Problem




Should You Pull the Lever and Push Your Neighbor?

Okay everyone, here it is, the infamous Trolley Problem. Many of you will have heard of this moral dilemma; it was invented by philosopher Phillipa Foot about fifty years ago and has become very widely known in the last few years. Here's my version:

Scenario 1:

Imagine that you are walking through a railroad yard and you happen to see a runaway train. The train car is hurtling down the track at tremendous speed, and no one is driving it. It's clear to you that if nothing is done, the train will will collide with a group of five people working on the tracks, killing all of them. Fortunately (or unfortunately), you are standing next to the rail switch. If you pull the rail switch, it will divert the train onto a different track, thereby sparing the five people a grisly death. However, there is one person working on the second track. If you pull the lever, it will divert the train toward this person, and he or she will be killed by the oncoming calamity. So, should you pull the lever? You can save five people, but doing so will ensure the death of one person. How should you decide the best course of action?

Scenario 2:

Don't worry, it gets worse. Now imagine a similar scenario. This time, you are standing on a bridge overlooking the rail yard. As before, you see a runaway train hurtling down the track toward a group of five people. You can see that if you were able to drop a heavy weight on to the track in front of the train, it would slow down the train enough for the five people to escape unharmed. Fortunately (or unfortunately), you are standing next to a very large person. If you push this large person off of the bridge, it will stop the train, but the large person will die. What should you do? As before, you can save five people, but only by ensuring the death of one.

For the sake of this ridiculous puzzle, assume that there is no third option that will spare all the people involved. For instance, you can't just yell, "Hey, get out of the way!" Maybe you have laryngitis, who knows? I know it's not realistic, but, hey, it's philosophy. For each scenario you need to choose to either pull the lever/push the person or do nothing.

Here's what I want you to tell me: In each scenario, what should a person do? I want you to convince me of the morally best course of action - not necessarily what you would do. Make an argument to defend your decision.

Here are some philosophical questions that I'll be thinking about: Are the two scenarios the same or different? If they are morally different, why would they be different? Is it a problem if you respond differently in each case? For instance, would it be a problem to respond in an inconsistent way? As you think about this problem, consider Consequentialism and Deontology, both of which I've talked about in this week's lectures. Also, consider how your choice of action can be universalized - this means you should consider your choice of action as analogous with morality generally. For instance, if you think you should walk away and do nothing, does this mean you are making the argument that we're always  morally permitted to just walk away when we're able to help people?

A couple final points. Don't just say that you'll "let fate decide". That's tantamount to not deciding. If you decide to walk away, make an argument for why this is the best course of action. I want you to respond as if there is morally correct answer to these puzzles, and I want you to convince me that you have identified that answer. And finally: this moral puzzle is pretty ridiculous, so don't be afraid to have some fun with your answer.

Your response should be between 250 & 500 words. You can start your own thread, or reply to another person's thread. As always, I expect standard college level writing. Good luck!


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