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Ethical Theories and the Infamous Trolley Problem, Part II

By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

This is the second of a two-part series on ethical theories.

In the first half of this article, I explained the ethical theories of egoism, utilitarianism and deontology. To help illustrate the differences among these theories, we can apply the famous hypothetical ethics quandary introduced by Philippa Foot in the mid-20th century called “The Trolley Problem.”

A trolley barrels down a track. Five individuals are tied to the track and will be killed unless someone intervenes. You, an observer watching this situation, had nothing to do with the circumstances in which these five people find themselves. But you are nonetheless the only person capable of helping.

A lever near you would divert the trolley to another track, effectively rescuing the five people from certain death. However, if you pull the lever there is a single individual tied to the alternate track that the trolley would be diverted to. That individual would be killed were you to pull the lever. You don’t have enough time to untie any of the individuals and you don’t have any way to stop the trolley. For the sake of the thought experiment, your only option is to pull the lever or not.

The Problem at the Heart of This Experiment Is to Determine the Most Ethical Conduct

The obvious problem at the heart of this experiment is to determine the most ethical conduct here: Should you do nothing and let the five people die? Or should you pull the lever and save the five people, but in doing so kill the one person on the alternate track?

This problem was created to emphasize the distinction between taking action and omitting action. Is there an ethical difference between permitting five people to die whom you could easily save and killing the one person who was not otherwise in peril?

Some would say that it’s better to pull the lever and save five people at the expense of one person. Others would say that you had nothing to do with the situation and it would it be better to simply walk away. Pulling the lever would essentially amount to murdering the one person who isn’t currently in danger.

For the purposes of our discussion and to evaluate differences in consequences, we can apply the three ethical theories outlined in the first part of this article.

Which of the Two Choices Would Bring about Better Well-Being for You?

In an egoist paradigm, the question would be: Which of the two choices would bring about better well-being for you? Obviously you’re not in any personal danger in this scenario, but if you had a personal attachment to any of the individuals in peril, the decision might be determined by a prerogative to save those people who are of greatest personal value to you.

For example, if the one person on the alternate track was your mother or another loved one, you might choose not to pull the lever. However, if all the individuals involved were complete strangers, you might not have a strong investment in the decision either way.

If You Are an Egoist, You Would Take Action That Would Result in the Least Personal Guilt

To be fair, you might also consider the weight of accountability afterward. In other words, how guilty would you feel about your decision? All other factors being equal, if you are an egoist observer, you would probably take the action that would result in the least amount of personal guilt.

Under a utilitarian ethics theory, pulling the lever would maximize the quantitative well-being. That is, in a purely mathematical sense the lives of five people certainly matter more than the life of one. However, the analysis could become complicated when you consider qualitative factors. But this trolley problem hasn’t really given you enough information to assess the qualitative value of each life involved, so the numbers are all you have to work with.

Under a utilitarian perspective, notwithstanding personal connections to any of those involved, switching the tracks would be the proper choice. This might sound like a heartless disposition, but such a perspective could be advantageous when emotions cloud otherwise rational judgment.

By Not Intervening, You Are Condemning to Death Other Parents’ Children

If the person tied to the alternate track is your child, you might be tempted to let the other five people die. But is that really the most proper and humane decision? By not intervening you are of course condemning to death other parents’ children. You’ve made your decision based on your connection to your own child; never mind that you will likely create five times the grief in other people that you would feel if you sacrificed your child.

Based on a deontological position, you would assess the choices of the trolley problem based on perceptions of your duties to yourself and to the individuals involved. The problem is we are left with the question of what principles ought to constitute “duties,” and how these duties should play out in the scenario.

For example, if we hold that abstaining from killing others is a duty, then we have to address the second question, whether allowing someone to die is ethically equivalent to killing someone. If the two are equivalent, then there isn’t any deontological argument for one choice over the other. It could be argued, however, that the duty to five people might outweigh the duty to one, regardless of what those duties are construed to be; this might be something of a deontological/utilitarian hybrid.

But if killing someone and letting some others die is not equivalent, then you must decide which holds a higher priority in the hierarchy of duties. Most people would likely argue that actively killing is the greater of the two wrongs. If that is the case, and a higher deontological duty is placed on not killing than on not allowing death, then accordingly, you would not throw the switch.

Ultimately, there are too many unknowns in the trolley problem to come up with any absolute rules for ethical behavior. Different circumstances will always dictate different analyses. But by carefully studying prominent ethical theories and their application to thought experiments such as the trolley problem, we might better understand our own ethical reasoning and better navigate ethical decisions in the future.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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