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Could There Be A Solution To The Trolley Problem?

Omid Panahi finds that finding a solution is not the problem.

The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment first devised by the Oxford moral philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967. In her paper titled ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’, Foot wrote “it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram [trolley] which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track the tram enters is bound to be killed.” And so the Trolley Problem was born. (We should note that Foot presented this thought experiment as one among many others, and there is no evident reason why this one has received so much attention from the philosophical and scientific communities.)

In 1976, nine years after Foot published her original paper on the Trolley Problem, the American philosopher Judith J. Thomson wrote a paper called ‘Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem’, in which she introduced a second version of the Trolley Problem, making it all the more interesting:

“George is on a footbridge over the trolley tracks. He knows trolleys, and can see that the one approaching the bridge is out of control. On the track back of the bridge there are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. George knows that the only way to stop an out-of-control trolley is to drop a very heavy weight into its path. But the only available, sufficiently heavy weight, is a fat man, also watching the trolley from the footbridge. George can shove the fat man onto the track in the path of the trolley, killing the fat man; or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five die.”

In contemporary ethics, Thomson’s second scenario, involving the fat man and the footbridge, is viewed as an indispensable part of the Trolley Problem, and is included in almost all presentations of the thought experiment. After all, the second scenario makes the problem interesting – and incredibly puzzling.

trolley problem
Trolley Problems © Steve Lillie 2016. Please visit www.stevelillie.biz

Various Solutions

I have noticed that when first presented with the Trolley Problem, many people tend to think of the different ways in which the obvious tragedies, namely the death of one or of five individuals, depending on one’s choice, could be avoided altogether. For instance, in a real world scenario, one might be able to loudly warn the workmen on the tracks of the approaching trolley, in anticipation that they will move and save their lives themselves. But that would be to miss the point of the thought experiment. The Trolley Problem sets up a moral dilemma in which one is to decide whether to steer the trolley in the first scenario, and whether to push the fat man off the footbridge in the second, so that one person dies as opposed to five. Those are the only options available. So, what is one to do?

Foot’s own response to the Trolley Problem was that the morally justified action would be to steer the trolley to kill the one workman, thus saving a net four lives. In order to demonstrate the morality of this, she made a distinction between what she called ‘negative duties’ and ‘positive duties’. In the broad sense, she defined negative duties as the obligation to refrain from harming others and positive duties as the obligation to actively do good – in this case, to save lives. She argued that, as a matter of principle, our negative duties to refrain from harm are always more urgent and weigh more than our positive duties, so that one is not justified in violating a negative duty to not harm others in order to fulfill a positive duty of helping someone. Using this line of reasoning, Foot’s version of the Trolley Problem can be said to present a conflict between two negative duties. In other words, the driver of the trolley can ask the following: “Is it my duty to not harm one individual, or to not harm five individuals?” And the answer, according to Foot, is obviously the latter, since it leads to less harm.

In the footbridge scenario, however, one faces a conflict between a negative duty and a positive duty, namely the negative duty of not harming the fat man on the footbridge, and the positive duty of saving the lives of the five workmen on the track. In this case, Foot would argue that, since saving the lives of the five workmen requires doing significant harm to (indeed, killing) the fat man on the footbridge, one is not morally justified in doing it.

Thomson had a different point of view. Although she agreed with Foot on just what the morally superior action is, she disagreed as to why one should act that way. In Thomson’s view, the real distinction lies between “deflecting a threat from a larger group onto a smaller group,” and “bringing a different threat to bear on the smaller group.” Using this premise, she argued that it is morally justified to steer the trolley onto the track where there is one workman, since that would be to deflect the threat from the five workmen (larger group) to the one workman (smaller group); and that it is morally unjustified to push the fat man off the footbridge, since that would be to create an entirely new threat for him. In response to the Problem, philosophers influenced by Kant have argued that one ought not to use human beings as a means to save others, so it would be morally right to steer the trolley away from the five, but morally wrong to push the fat man. And some have questioned the very assumption that one is morally obliged to minimize harm, or to bring about the death of as few people as possible. But the question remains: what is the solution to the Trolley Problem?

No Solution, No Problem

The answer, in my view, is that there is no definitive solution. Like most philosophical problems, the Trolley Problem is not designed to have a solution. It is, rather, intended to provoke thought, and create an intellectual discourse in which the difficulty of resolving moral dilemmas is appreciated, and our limitations as moral agents are recognized. The ongoing discourse over the Trolley Problem is not a discourse about solutions per se – after all, in both scenarios of the problem, there are only two ways in which one could act – but one that places significance on reasons. This is not to say, however, that every opinion on the Trolley Problem is perfectly legitimate. We should acknowledge that there are more or less justifiable resolutions to the Problem – or any moral dilemma, for that matter – and that it is only through reason and rational argumentation that we can converge upon them. As we saw in the agreement over the right response between Foot and Thomson, most of us differ only in the reasons for which we prefer one solution to the Trolley Problem over the other: most people agree on the solution. That is what has kept the Trolley Problem alive among philosophers for nearly five decades.

I do not believe there will ever be a perfect solution to the Trolley Problem, nor a consensus as to the best possible solution. All we can hope for – and should hope for, as I have argued – is to utilize the tools of philosophy as well as the scientific method to continue this discourse. The Trolley Problem does not have to be resolved; it merely needs to be contemplated, and to be the topic of our conversations from time to time.

© Omid Panahi 2016

Omid Panahi is a freelance science and philosophy writer. Follow him on Twitter (@OmidPPanahi) and Medium (@OmidPPanahi).

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