The trolley problem is one of the most discussed cases in analytical philosophy. Readers who find its description in my last blog too vague or are not good in visualizing written texts can watch this only 97 seconds lasting video that explains what it is about:
There are several versions of the case and last week I discussed the “tunnel version” in which the five cannot escape because they are in a tunnel. Your only choice is either turning the switch and lead the trolley to another track where a man is walking or doing nothing. However, there are alternative versions in which you perform another action instead of turning a switch in order to save the five people. All involve different, though related, ethical problems. The most treated version is one in which you can push a fat man onto the track, so that the trolley will be stopped, but the fat man will be killed. People may think: Be a hero and jump yourself onto the track. However, because you are as meagre as I am, you will simply be knocked down by the trolley or it will push you aside. Therefore the only options are pushing the fat man onto the track or doing nothing.
Most people judge that it is allowed to turn the switch to save the five but not to push the fat man onto the track, even though in both versions one person is killed and five persons are saved. Philosophers have written a lot about why this is so (and also most philosophers think that it is not allowed to push the fat man), but here I have to bypass their reasons pro and con. The essence is that sacrificing the fat man is a means to save the five, while sacrificing the single walker on the track is a side-effect of turning the switch (while the latter action is the means). In terms of my last blog we can also say that killing the fat man is done, while killing the single walker is enabled (actually I should say: that the single walker is killed is enabled).
For a non-philosopher cases like the trolley problem (if not its more complicated versions) may look weird. You might think that cases are the playthings of philosophers. This can be so, indeed, but these toys have often serious meanings. By analyzing the trolley problem it becomes clear that it is important to distinguish between means and side effects. But the case also exemplifies the question whether we are allowed to do the lesser evil in order to get the bigger good. To answer such questions is not always easy. Therefore it makes sense to rack your brains on simple cases, which in the end appear to be not simple at all. Here are some practical examples that are actually trolley-like problems:
- Many will say that in a war it is allowed to bomb a munitions factory of the enemy. But what if the factory is situated near a residential quarter? For the factory will explode and it will kill many civilians. What if only a few civilians are likely to be killed by the explosion? What if we need to drop hundred bombs for destroying the factory and it is sure that about ten bombs will not fall on the factory but will directly kill civilians living near the factory?
- Stalin and his co-communists thought that it was allowed to kill the “kulaks” for the bigger good of communism. It’s an extreme case of what often happens.
- Is it allowed to demolish the house of an old woman if we destroy her happiness – because she has lived there her whole life – since we want to build a road there, even if this woman is compensated in all ways possible?
- Sartre tells somewhere that an ex-student of his asked him for advice: He wants to join the Free French forces in order to fight against the Nazis. However, then he must leave his mother alone in difficult circumstances, while it might also get her into trouble with the Germans.
Big and small problems are often kinds of trolley problems. The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus dealt with trolley-like problems in his work. His standpoints in such questions made him controversial, so Sarah Bakewell, also because it made that he didn’t support the rebels in the fight for independence of Algeria in the 1950s (Camus was from Algeria). But when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, he explained in an interview: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Philosophy is as practical as philosophy can be.
- Bakewell, Sarah, The existentialist café. London: Vintage, 2016; pp. 7-8, 246.- Kamm, F.M., The trolley problem mysteries. With commentaries by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Thomas Hurka, Shelly Kagan. Edited and introduced by Eric Rakowski. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.