Fresh AiR SciPhi - Youtube Show
Fresh AiR SciPhi - Youtube Show

Thought Experiments

Tonight we discuss thought experiments, how they might be answered through different moral theories, and how context might change folks’ answers.

We will start with the Trolley Problem, and if we run out of time will cover the rest in a future episode, such as the experience machine or doctor problem.

Trolley Problem

Most people are at the very least aware of the trolley problem via memes across the internet and there are a variety of different thoughts on it. The basic trolley problem has a trolley/tram/train heading towards 5 folks tied to the tracks. The track next to it has one person tied to it. You are standing next to a lever that can switch the tracks saving those 5 people, but in doing so it will cause the one person to die who is tied to the other track. What do you do?

Common answers/thoughts

  • Saving the many outweighs the needs of the few.
  • Pulling the lever means you are responsible for that person’s death whereas you were not responsible for tieing folks to the tracks, therefore pulling the lever is immoral as you cause the death.
  • Once aware of any situation you become a moral agent, and therefore inaction is a form of action because you could have saved 5 people
  • A number of people try to not answer the question saying they would stop the trolley by some other means or something which is not part of the hypothetical.

How various moral theories would answer it

  • Consequentialist (e.g. Act Utilitarianism or Welfarism)
  • Deontological (e.g. Kantianism, or Rule Utilitarianism)
  • Virtue Ethics

Adding Context to the Trolley Problem

When we consider the trolley problem, it is considered as a blank template, with all the lives counting as equal, no negative consequences (except the obvious) from saving them etc. For example, the 5 people are not considered mass murders, and saving them would do more harm than good. Therefore the only real objective means of deciding what happens is using mathematics, and 5 is better than 1 based on an equal value system. Some still wouldn’t pull the lever as they feel they are actively responsible for death rather than being passively responsible for 5.

What happens then if we add context? If the 5 are the Trumps, and the 1 is someone who is going to cure cancer, for example, we might suddenly change our mind on how we are going to act. Some might argue that there is more chance of getting bad people in the 5, but this could be flipped and there is also more chance of good people being in the 5 too. So here we will go through a number of different trolley problem memes to see how we might act in this situation.

There are other thought experiments as well, which we will mention, and in fact we go in to detail about the experience machine!

Watch this video on YouTube.

If you have any questions, want us to go into more detail about something, corrections, critique etc. feel free to leave us a message either under the article/video/podcast on the site, on YouTube, or feel free to DM us on one of our social media accounts.

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For the full experience, we suggest the website: as we provide a number of links to various resources discussed in the article, however, can be seen on a number of podcast outlets such as:  iTunes | Stitcher | Google Play | Spotify | Podplayer  – and we are not limited to these either, just search for Answers in Reason or Fresh AiR in your favourite podcast syndication.

Fresh AiR Videos!

Whilst the SciPhi show is quick live videos discussing relevant and current topics, with Season 3 we tried a few different things with Fresh AiR, inclusive of videos taking people through concepts.

These can be found both on the site, and in this YouTube playlist:


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