- Brief overview of the Trolley Problem.
- Highlighting the ethical dilemma it presents.
- Origin of the Trolley Problem
- Historical background and its emergence in ethical discussions.
- The Scenario Unveiled
- Detailed description of the classic Trolley Problem scenario.
- Introduction of the two moral choices: action and inaction.
- Philosophical Perspectives
- Exploration of various ethical theories’ responses to the Trolley Problem.
- Discussing consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics.
- Real-world Applications
- Examining instances in which the Trolley Problem’s principles are relevant.
- Examples from medical ethics, autonomous vehicles, and other fields.
- Criticisms and Debates
- Analyzing critiques and counterarguments against the Trolley Problem.
- Addressing the complexity and nuances involved.
- Psychological Impact
- Delving into the emotional and psychological aspects of decision-making in such scenarios.
- Impact on individuals and society.
- Technology and the Trolley Problem
- Discussing the role of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.
- Ethical considerations in programming algorithms for decision-making.
- Evolution of the Ethical Landscape
- Examining how the Trolley Problem has influenced ethical discussions over time.
- Changes in societal perspectives and norms.
- Popular Culture References
- Highlighting instances of the Trolley Problem in movies, TV shows, and literature.
- Impact on popular culture and public awareness.
- Ethical Education and Awareness
- Advocating for the inclusion of the Trolley Problem in ethics education.
- Promoting awareness of ethical decision-making.
- The Trolley Problem in Legal Context
- Exploring any legal implications or considerations related to the scenario.
- Cases where the Trolley Problem might be relevant in a legal framework.
- Global Perspectives
- Examining how different cultures and societies view and approach the Trolley Problem.
- Contrasting ethical values on a global scale.
- Future Considerations
- Predicting how advancements in technology and changes in societal norms may impact the Trolley Problem.
- Speculating on future ethical dilemmas.
- Summarizing key points.
- Reiterating the ongoing relevance of the Trolley Problem.
The Trolley Problem – An Ethical Conundrum That Persists Through the Years
The Trolley Problem is not just a philosophical puzzle; it’s a thought experiment that has captivated ethical discussions for decades. At its core, it presents a challenging scenario where one must grapple with the moral implications of choosing between two seemingly irreconcilable options.
Origin of the Trolley Problem
To truly understand the significance of the Trolley Problem, we need to delve into its origins. Emerging in ethical discussions in the mid-20th century, this thought experiment quickly became a focal point for exploring the complexities of moral decision-making.
The Trolley Problem was first proposed by British philosopher Philipa Foot as a defence for the doctrine of double effect. The Trolley Problem was coined as such by American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, in her essay “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem” (1976).
Along with Judith Jarvis Thomson, philosophers such as Frances Kamm, and Peter Unger have extensively analysed this problem though it is something quite common within ethics, and there have been many variations/adaptations and papers on the matter. Even today we see the trolley problem frequently coming up on social media and addressed by YouTubers such as Alex O’Connor.
The Scenario Unveiled
Imagine a runaway trolley hurtling down a track, headed towards five unsuspecting individuals tied to the rails. You, standing next to a lever, have the power to divert the trolley onto another track, sparing the five lives but leading to the certain death of one person. The ethical dilemma is palpable—do you take action and become directly responsible for one death, or do you choose inaction, allowing the tragedy to unfold without your intervention?
Is Inaction an Action?
The first question you have to ask yourself is if you consider *conscious* inaction a form of action.
I mention conscious inaction because it is different from unknowingly not doing something. Part of our moral responsibility comes down to being aware of a situation, our ability to change that situation, our intent in changing that situation, and the conclusion of the situation.
There are some who argue that as they are not responsible for the situation they have no responsibility in its conclusion.
Others take the position that even though they are not responsible for the situation itself, being aware of the situation and having the ability to change the outcome gives them some ethical responsibility.
The conscious choice to not act is an act in and of itself.
Consider simple things like you see someone fall over in the street, it wasn’t your fault but do you just walk by or help them up? What about walking into the kitchen and finding a broken glass on the floor? You didn’t cause it but do you just leave it for someone else? What if your inaction causes another person injury?
Ethical theories offer different lenses through which to view the Trolley Problem. Consequentialism argues for the greater good, deontology emphasizes moral duties, and virtue ethics considers the character of the decision-maker. Each perspective adds layers to the complexity of the moral choices presented by the Trolley Problem.
I mention that consequentialism argues for a greater good, and the problem then becomes what that greater good entails, for each consequentialist moral theory there is a differing value and calculation.
We must remember that consequentialist theories care more about the outcome, or consequences, than the intents behind them.
It might then seem like the simplest answer to a consequentialist theory is to save the 5 – but let’s have a look at that.
An example of the varying calculations could be found if we compare Act Utilitarianism with Preference Satisfaction utilitarianism. These two are largely similar in their results but are calculated differently.
Act utilitarianism is about maximising pleasure/well-being and minimising suffering.
Preference satisfaction utilitarianism is about maximising the preferences satisfied.
In the trolley problem, we have no information other than presented and no time to ask questions, just a few seconds to make a decision.
We would likely reason, in both forms of utilitarianism that pulling the level maximises the value. We would reduce suffering by saving the majority and most people would prefer to live.
But what if that is not the case or they are in conflict?
On the first layer, we have the issue of not knowing if the people would prefer to be killed or if even if they would prefer to live they are suffering such a severe depression that allowing them to die would actually hold a net reduction in suffering. That said, generally, we find in this sort of situation the preferences and well-being statements lining up.
The problem, then, becomes that of subsequent consequences.
What if the 5 people saved are all murderers, rapists, child abusers?- they go on to cause a lot more suffering and decrease the preferences filled.
What if the 5 people are the last of their lineage but the 1 person is massively loved by family and friends? – The net would be an increase in suffering, and fewer preferences would be filled.
You then have the consequences of consequences and so on.
Dissolving some of the tension
Some of this tension is resolved by the notion that we are only responsible for the direct action/inaction we take. The subsequent consequences are not our responsibility because we do not have an awareness of them and we do not have the information to consider those consequences.
We still might be in a situation where the action we take results in a net-negative. In those instances, we have had an immoral consequence, but our intents were pure and therefore we allow ourselves off the hook.
So, How Would a Consequentialist Answer?
In general, a consequentialist would pull the lever and save the 5 people, but as I briefly described, there are some other considerations that might come into play with the overall thought processes, and my descriptions above are not exhaustive.
Deontology is essentially following a set of rules. These rules are often based on what consequences they bring about, but the important thing is following the rules even if there might be odd occasions where they don’t result in the consequence.
The way the rules are derived varies, so as such different deontological ethical theories can be in conflict like the consequentialist ones can too.
As deontological theories concern themselves with following the rules, the subsequent consequences do not pose a problem in the way they might for consequentialism.
Kantianism is a deontological ethical theory developed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant1234. It is based on the notion that the motive (or means), and not consequence (or end), of an action determines its moral value3. Kant believed that ethical actions follow universal moral laws, such as “Don’t lie”5.
One of the distinctive features of Kant’s ethics is that it focuses on duties, defined by right and wrong. Right and wrong (which are the primary deontic categories, along with obligatory, optional, supererogatory, and others) are distinct from good and bad (which are value categories) in that they directly prescribe actions: right actions are ones we ought to do (are morally required to do) and wrong actions we ought not to do (are morally forbidden from doing).Kantian Deontology – Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics (rebus.community)
Kant felt that all the imperatives that made his ethical theory should be universal rules much like scientific laws. Whilst Kantianism is arguably more complex, a simplistic way to explain the rationalisation is by asking the question, “If everyone did x all the time would that result in a positive or negative?” – we joked about this in our comic: Kantian Insomnia
So, if everyone raped, stole, killed, lied, and so on, that would not result in a positive for society so those things were deemed immoral. If something is immoral, it is always immoral – context is largely irrelevant.
Therefore, under Kantianism, we are left with the notion that taking action is actively killing someone, and therefore wrong, so the lever should not be pulled.
Tensions in Kantianism
There might be some that feel a conflict as people should be treated with respect and never a means to an end. The tension increases when we understand the notion that we should help each other out of a sense of moral duty.
However, Kantianism doesn’t strictly mandate helping others, it’s more of an entailment around the imperatives, whereas it does mandate not killing each other – so the tension is mostly relieved.
The end result is the same, we should not pull the lever.
The hardest application here is virtue ethics, because there is no simple calculation or set of rules to base this off instead, you are asking yourself “What is the most virtuous behaviour to take?”
There is, essentially, a set list of virtues and the way each is applied is like a balanced scale. If we consider bravery as a virtue.. too much bravery can lead to the instance where it becomes a vice and instead of bravery it’s arrogant stupidity, and equally, a lack of bravery leads to the vice of cowardice.
So the careful weighting of the virtues comes into play and you act in accordance with that balance, hoping you are not wrong.
The subsequent consequences, again, are less of a problem though it can be argued that if the consequences are truly undesirable one hasn’t balanced the virtues correctly.
I think the virtue ethicist would usually pull the lever, but this is less certain than other views.
The Trolley Problem isn’t confined to hypothetical scenarios. Its principles echo in the real world, from medical professionals making life-altering decisions to the programming of autonomous vehicles navigating complex moral terrain.
- if there are five patients who need organs and a healthy person comes in who is a valid donor, should we kill that person to save the five?
- If you’re in a hostage situation and are told if you don’t kill one hostage they will kill all the hostages, do you kill one?
- If an autonomous vehicle is responsible for the death of an innocent, who is to blame?
- How should we build an ethics engine for A.I.?
- How can we ensure A.I. is ethically used?
Therefore, whilst the trolley problem is a delightfully simple thought experiment on the surface, it can help us consider the deeper implications that apply to the world.
Criticisms and Debates
As with any ethical dilemma, the Trolley Problem has its critics. Some argue that it oversimplifies complex moral decision-making, while others question the validity of using extreme hypotheticals to guide ethical principles.
It’s very unlikely we would ever experience a real-world trolley problem (at least as per the experiment is defined), and if we did all rationalisation would go out the window. Most people in a situation of emergency either automatically act without thinking or totally freeze up. Our considerations of the trolley problem don’t give insight into how we would actually act, just how we think we should act – but does that really pose an issue?
Another issue with the trolley problem is people’s tendency to not actually consider the problem as it is – they say things like “I would go and untie them” or “I would put a penny on the rails to derail the trolley!”
The problem, then, is they’ve both not understood the problem and the choices, and they haven’t actually answered it. It’s like someone saying “Would you like a coffee or a tea” and answering “I’ll have a pint of vodka!”
They might argue that the trolley problem doesn’t represent the real world and that’s what they would do in the real world, but if the situation was in the real world, they still wouldn’t have time to act. They would be in the control office with limited time to make a decision.
The flip side is, that there have been real-world trolley-problem-like tests, either with students being shown animals that will be tortured if they don’t push the button, or an actual real-world simulated problem with trains on tracks. In both instances, more than 80% descended to switch the tracks.
Delving into the psychological aspects, the Trolley Problem reveals the intricacies of human emotion and decision-making. The emotional burden of actively causing harm versus the guilt of passive inaction adds a profound layer to the scenario.
Some people might not consider the psychological impact of; themselves, the people they save/let die, and their families and focus purely on the physical harm caused.
However, psychological/emotional harm is another layer that should be considered as part of the process, and if we consider “the real world” it would likely be the deciding factor.
Another psychological impact is how uncomfortable people are answering the Trolley Problem. The tendency to add in additional parameters or provide an answer outside the dichotomy shows how when faced with a dichotomous choice in which there are no “good” answers, in the sense of no way to avoid harm, we are desperate to find a way to “make good”.
One could conclude that this even shows a weighting to ethical behaviours being ingrained in part of the human psyche.
Technology and the Trolley Problem
With the rise of artificial intelligence, the Trolley Problem has found new relevance. Programming algorithms for decision-making in autonomous systems raises critical questions about the ethical responsibilities of those who design and implement such technologies.
There are many opinions over the “best” normative ethical theory to apply or if a value pluralist approach should be applied with fuzzy logic and weighted values. There are questions about if it is even ethical to put a quantifiable value on a human life, and if it is ethical to take age, health, economic disposition and so on into account.
If we humans cannot agree on a standard of morality, how can we then expect A.I. to make the decision for us? What about when it goes wrong? Who is to blame? Where does the ethical responsibility land?
Evolution of the Ethical Landscape
Over time, societal norms and ethical considerations evolve. The Trolley Problem serves as a marker of this evolution, reflecting changing perspectives on morality and individual responsibility.
Popular Culture References
From philosophical discussions to popular culture, the Trolley Problem has left an indelible mark. Its presence in movies, TV shows, and literature demonstrates its enduring impact on the collective consciousness.
The most famous, and arguably the best, use of the trolley problem is in ‘The Good Place’ – a sitcom that cleverly teaches you a lot of moral philosophy without knowing it. They even have an actual trolley problem!
Ethical Education and Awareness
Advocating for the inclusion of the Trolley Problem in ethics education is crucial. By raising awareness and fostering discussion, society can better prepare individuals to navigate complex moral dilemmas.
Even outside of an academic setting, the Trolley Problem gets people thinking about ethics. Whilst we might all have varying ethical understandings, anything that might lead to the question, “what does it mean to be good?” is somewhat positive in my book.
The Trolley Problem in Legal Context
While primarily a philosophical dilemma, the Trolley Problem may have legal implications. Exploring its relevance in a legal framework can shed light on how society grapples with questions of moral responsibility.
It should be noted that legal/illegal are different to moral/immoral. There are things that are illegal that are not immoral and things legal that are.
Even still, ethical consideration can form a part of proposed law changes and legal battles.
Cultural differences influence ethical perspectives. Examining how diverse cultures approach the Trolley Problem provides insight into the universality—or lack thereof—of ethical principles.
It can be quite fascinating to examine how one’s culture or religion can affect the answers given to any ethical problem. The Trolley problem gives us easy access to see how these various cultures and religions might affect one’s answer – and even examine differences of opinion from within the same religion or culture.
Different cultures approach the trolley problem with varied perspectives influenced by their ethical, philosophical, and cultural values.
Just as a brief idea:
- Western Individualism: In Western cultures, the emphasis on individual rights and consequentialism may lead to a utilitarian approach, favouring the greater good by sacrificing one for many.
- Asian Cultural Values: Chinese fatalism, deeply rooted in Chinese culture, might influence a different perspective, where acceptance of fate plays a role in decision-making regarding the trolley problem.
- Cross-Cultural Variances: Variances in responses can also be attributed to cross-societal differences, including expectations of reputation and socioecological factors.
Cultural nuances shape ethical decision-making, resulting in diverse approaches to the trolley problem across the globe.
As technology advances and societal norms shift, new ethical dilemmas will emerge. Considering the trajectory of the Trolley Problem allows us to speculate on future challenges and the evolving nature of moral decision-making.
That said, the Trolley Problem shouldn’t be the only thing examined as part of the ethical considerations.
Let’s not forget that something a lot of us do on the internet is spend time laughing at and/or creating memes.
With the trolley problem being such a simplistic image it is easy to come up with variations and post them either for fun or for people to seriously consider.
Just take a look at some of these variations of the trolley problem.
The Trolley Problem remains an enduring ethical puzzle, weaving through the realms of philosophy, technology, and popular culture. Its continued prominence signifies its profound impact on our moral comprehension.
Debates persist on the “correct” resolution, even questioning the necessity of considering the trolley problem. As technology advances, such ethical quandaries will increasingly dominate discussions in the realms of technology and AI.
While cultural influences shape our responses, the internet’s vast information access and diverse opinions may gradually align global perspectives. The evolving landscape ensures the perpetual relevance of the Trolley Problem, captivating minds across disciplines and fostering a dynamic dialogue on morality.
Will there ever be a “correct” answer discovered? Will the Trolley Problem persist for centuries to come? Has your answer to the Trolley Problem changed having read this article?
BONUS: The Article Trolley AI Problem
Edit: 2023-12-12 11:26
If you’re writing an article, you have a few paragraphs and some bullet points of other things you should cover, but you feel that you’re missing something – you might talk things through with a friend, or group of friends. Perhaps you post some questions on social media and use the responses to fuel your investigations.
In this instance, though, let’s say you’re burning hot with inspiration. Your friends are not answering and you want to keep writing in case letting the dust settle means the article never gets finished. Do you feed your current progress in to AI and ask for an outline, or do you wait for your friends to come back to you and hope you’re still inspired?
In either case, should you credit your friends or AI for the inspiration they gave you?
The Article Trolley Problem of the Trolley Problem Article
An example is this very article. I had written a few paragraphs and had some bullet points but also felt I was missing some key information.
I asked ChatGPT to give me some bullet points on what my article should cover based on this. Most of what it gave back to me in the outline (seen at the start of the article) was what I had already but it had added a couple of extra bits and changes the order slightly.
For this article specifically, it wasn’t anything I hadn’t already researched, or at least discussed with friends, historically about the Trolley Problem. What it did do, is jog my memory and give me a better idea how to structure the article.
At the time, I didn’t think this was a case for giving AI the credit, had it written chunks of content and I had use them then sure, most definitely see the benefit to nodding to work that is not mine, much in the way I tend to “quote with reference” throughout the article and try and leave links at the bottom of articles of things that I read that would likely be influential factors in my work, even if I am not using them directly.
Human vs AI vs Tools
If a human editor helps me rephrase things, I tend to credit them in the article (unless I forget) but spellcheckers and Grammarly are two tools (that are arguably rudimentary forms of AI) that I use that I don’t actively give credit to.
The difference between these tools, and GPT is quite significant; Grammarly might suggest a word is added or removed, or it might change the spelling, but unless you’re premium it doesn’t offer any significant reconstruction.
Even if it was just the outline that was most my bullets anyway, GPT actually generated work I put into my article and influenced me. GPT is also integrated into Bing so when I was searching for additional info it provided me some good summaries with links to read up on (links are included in the list below just FYI).
So, even though this article is written by me, using my words (apart from where quoted), this article is different enough to how it would have been had I not asked chat GPT for an outline – therefore it deserves credit.
- Is the Trolley Problem a realistic scenario or just a philosophical exercise?
- While initially a thought experiment, real-world applications in various fields make it a practical consideration.
- Do people’s cultural backgrounds influence their response to the Trolley Problem?
- Yes, cultural values can play a significant role in shaping individuals’ ethical perspectives.
- How has the Trolley Problem influenced the development of autonomous technologies?
- The Trolley Problem has sparked discussions on programming ethical decision-making in autonomous systems.
- Is there a definitive answer to the Trolley Problem, or is it subjective?
- The lack of a definitive answer contributes to ongoing debates, emphasizing its subjective nature.
- Can the Trolley Problem help individuals make better ethical decisions in real life?
- While not a direct guide, contemplating the Trolley Problem can enhance moral reasoning and decision-making skills.
Links and References
- Trolley problem | Definition, Variations, Arguments, Solutions, & Facts | Britannica
- Doctrine of double effect | ethics | Britannica
- Trolley_Problem-PHIL_1A.pdf (brandeis.edu)
- The trolley problem: would you kill one person to save many others? | Science | The Guardian
- The trolley problem, 2021 style | British Journal of General Practice (bjgp.org)
- Virtue Ethics approach to the Trolley Problem – Philosophy Stack Exchange
- Autonomous Cars And The Real-Life Trolley Problem (sciencefriday.com)
- Two versions of the trolley problem elicit similar responses everywhere | Ars Technica
- ethics – Examples for real-world instances of trolley cases – Philosophy Stack Exchange
- The Trolley Problem Has Been Tested in ‘Real Life’ For The Very First Time : ScienceAlert
- Fresh AiR – Season 2 – Ethics and Morality » Answers In Reason (answers-in-reason.com)
- Fresh AiR – Season 1 – A Different Lens » Answers In Reason (answers-in-reason.com)
- Act Utilitarianism – Fresh AiR – S02:E02:C04 » Answers In Reason (answers-in-reason.com)
- Preference Satisfaction Utilitarianism – Fresh AiR – S02:E02:C05 » Answers In Reason (answers-in-reason.com)
- deontology » Answers In Reason 😇 (answers-in-reason.com)
- The Problem of Dirty Hands – SciPhi » Answers In Reason (answers-in-reason.com)
- Morality, Agency and Intent » Answers In Reason (answers-in-reason.com)
- Kantianism – Fresh AiR – S02:E02:C07 » Answers In Reason (answers-in-reason.com)
- Kantian ethics – Wikipedia
- Ethical Theory: Kantianism | The Concise Encyclopedia of Business Ethics
- Kantian Ethics – Overview, Categorical Imperatives, Morality (corporatefinanceinstitute.com)
- Deontological Ethics: Kantianism | Saylor Academy
- Deontology – Ethics Unwrapped (utexas.edu)
- Kantian Deontology – Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics (rebus.community)
- Kantian Insomnia » Answers In Reason (answers-in-reason.com)
- Taking Stupid Trolley Memes Seriously
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
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