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The Trolley Problem, in Theory, and in the Real World


The Trolley Problem is a famous hypothetical ethical dilemma often referred to as a thought experiment. This moral paradox was first posed by Phillipa Foot in 1967. Far from solving the dilemma, the trolley problem launched a wave of further investigation into the philosophical quandary it raises. And it’s still being debated today.

View the following YouTube videos regarding trolley dilemmas:

Trolley Car Dilemma – Harvard’s Michael Sandel (14:59) – In this video, Havard professor Micahel Sandel discusses the classic Trolley Dilemma and its various versions to an ethics class. As you view the video, reflect on the scenario presented to you in the module overview.

The Trolley Problem and Ethics of Driver-less Cars (5:07) – While the various Trolley Dilemmas represent hypothetical (and thus somewhat unrealistic) situations, this video depicts a modern, real-world example of the application of the same kinds of dilemmas and decisions.

After watching the video(s), address the following questions:

How would you respond to each of the five variants of the Trolley Problem described? Be thorough and justify your reasoning. For each scenario, think about whether or not the answers to the following two questions differ: What is the right thing to do, and what would you do? In each of these cases 1-4, the result will be the death of one person and saving the lives of five people.

Variants of the Trolly Problem

  1. Original problem – you are the trolley driver; the decision is to pull switch or not.
  2. Fat man variant – you are an observer on a bridge; the decision is to push fat man or not.
  3. Fat man/villain variant – you are an observer on a bridge; the decision is to push fat man or not; fat man is the villain who put the five people in danger on the tracks.
  4. Loved one variant – you are the trolley driver; the decision is to pull the switch or not; the one person that would die if you pull the switch is a dear loved one of yours (parent, child, spouse, etc.)
  5. Man sleeping in his yard variant – you can divert trolley’s path by colliding another trolley into it, but if you do, both will be derailed and go down a hill, and into a yard where a man is sleeping in a hammock. He would be killed.

Important Note

You cannot add any elements to change the situation – i.e., you cannot rush in and untie the people from the track, etc. You must make a choice between only the options given.

  • What if instead of killing one person to save five, your action would result in killing four people to save five? Would you change your behavior in any of the situations? Why or why not?
  • Transplant variant – This version addresses some of the same core issues as the Trolley Problem but with the following scenario: A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor. Should the doctor to kill that tourist and provide his healthy organs to those five dying persons to save their lives? How is this the scenario the same, and how does it differ from the Trolley Problem?

Return to this discussion activity throughout the week and reply with meaningful comments to a minimum of two of your peers.

In your replies, identify an opinion expressed that you disagree with or a point that you see differently. Respectfully discuss your alternate view and your reasons.

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