The Trolley Problem
by James Lamont
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
Preparation and materials
- Have available the song 'Turn! Turn! Turn!' by The Byrds and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
- Imagine the following scenario. A runaway big railway repair trolley is speeding down the line. Many attempts have been made to stop it, but with no success. The trolley will keep going until it hits something. An emergency alarm has alerted the railway workers, who are mostly safely away from the tracks. Unfortunately, one group of five workers laying the track have not received the warning and the trolley is heading straight for them. They are on a high bridge, so it will be very difficult for them to dodge the trolley when it reaches them.
- You do have one chance to save these workers. You can change the points and send the trolley down a branch line. There is, however, a single worker on that route.
So, if you divert the trolley, you will cause that worker's death. If you do nothing, however, and let the trolley continue to roll on its original route towards the five workers, they will all die. What would you do?
- This question has vexed philosophers and moral theorists since it was first asked. It touches on many issues. We do not have time to talk about all of them here now, but there is one major question it raises that I do want to focus on. Is there a difference between doing a bad act and allowing a bad act to happen as a result of inaction?
The runaway trolley is a particularly potent example of this because, if we are unable to make a choice and do nothing, we have, in effect, chosen to sacrifice the five people. Many people would say that this is a worse outcome than killing the one person on the other line. It is a dreadful situation because we cannot abstain from making a choice. We are forced us to make a terrible choice and it is clear that neither option is purely good or purely bad.
- People often have to make decisions with inadequate information and time and with far-reaching consequences. The runaway trolley may be an extreme example, but many people have to make such difficult choices, for which there are bad consequences whichever option they choose.
- So, how do we decide? Some people argue that we should do what is best for the greatest number of people. They are called 'utilitarians'. Many people would agree that it is better to save the lives of the five people than just the one person. That is utilitarian thinking.
Perhaps, though, the one person on the other line is a scientist, about to discover a cure for a terrible disease, or the sole breadwinner for his family of six children. In that case, would letting the trolley hit the five people be the better thing to do?
- One thing we can all agree on is that this is a tough call to make and many people would do anything to avoid being the one who has to do so and live with the consequences. Sometimes, though, the world gives us a difficult choice. I hope that none of you ever has to decide whether to let a runaway trolley kill five people or one, but you will have to face challenges in your lives.
Time for reflection
The best advice given for such situations comes from the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He argued that people should not spend hours deliberating moral questions, but should instead devote their time to being good people. By cultivating goodness, we can better prepare ourselves for times when we need to make a tough call.
Let’s take a moment now to think of the people who will have to make tough decisions today - firefighters, police, politicians, doctors and many more.
'Turn! Turn! Turn!' by The Byrds