January 30, 2013

The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem

There’s a famous philosophical dilemma called the ‘trolley problem.’ In this hypothetical scenario, there’s an out of control train on a track which five workers are repairing. You’re given just a second or two to decide if you want to to flip a switch and divert the train onto a second track. The dilemma is that there is a worker on that second track who will be killed if you flip the switch.

The opposing philosophies which apply here are ‘utilitarian’ – overall good of many, and ‘thou shalt not harm’ – leave it to a higher authority, and don’t consciously kill another person.

Studies have shown that 90 percent of people opted to kill one worker to save five when presented with this dilemma. The studies were then repeated with a twist. Subjects now wore virtual reality gear which projected an avatar of the worker. Surprisingly, 90 percent of people still opted to flip the switch and kill the lone worker even though they could now see their ‘victim.’ There was no change in the results.

Here comes the interesting part. When subjects were told that they had to physically push the worker and kill him instead of flipping a switch to save the other five, only 50 percent opted to kill him. And here’s the kicker. When people were told that the worker on the second track was either their spouse, sibling or parent, only one-third opted to save the five workers.

What can we infer? That evolution has selected a majority of those who will make split second decisions to kill another? That we don’t like to get our hands dirty? That we’re selfish and will sacrifice others in order to save our own? That there are powerful evolutionary forces which propel us into horrific acts when it is a matter of survival?

Are we condemned to always play out our Darwinian impulses? Will our humanity always beat out the divinity in us? That’s not a cheerful picture, if true.

What’s your take?



  • http://harshasrisri.wordpress.com Su

    If you prefer divinity over humanity, then I’m afraid, Earth is not a place for you, my friend. :-)
    I’ll give you another situation. Suppose, the 5 people are Dawood Ibrahim, Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Veerappan and Phoolan Devi. And, suppose, the lone person on the other track is, say, Suresh Kalmadi. would you flip the switch? I wouldn’t dare to.
    Humanity is a matter of choosing the lesser evil over the greater. If you have to flip the switch on your spouse or parents or friends, then you either don’t love them enough, or you believe that saving the other 5 people is greater good than saving your loved one.

    On a personal note, I wouldn’t deem the survey as logical if it is dealing only with quantity rather than the quality.

    • http://whatho.in Srini C

      I don’t think I’ve done justice to the problem. It’s not just a survey, but more of a study of how we think and react. They have tried out many variation of this problem to understand how we think and why we think the way we think.

      I’ve always had this sneaking suspicion that the Earth was not the right place :) Now you’re worrying me by confirming it :)

  • http://wabbster.com Pradeep

    This reminded me of the SAW movies. 😛

    We are still evolving, I guess. Well, consider this terrifying option – I say, “screw it” and don’t act, thus creating a bigger body count. We’re at that stage now. Humanity is still a few eons away.

    • http://whatho.in Srini C

      Should/will check out the SAW movies.

      What I thought was interesting was that – the ‘bigger body count’ justification evaporates when someone from our own families have to pay the price.

      I think it also makes you wonder how a God would act. God is the person who is not supposed to take sides. If that’s the case, why do we pray? This does make you wonder about the nature of faith and what expectations we should have of the Supreme One.

  • http://rachnaparmar.com Rachna

    Between the devil and the deep sea, these seem to be less terrible of the choices. I don’t think any person can sacrifice a loved one or opt to kill 5 instead of 1. That would be sacrificing our divinity.

    • http://whatho.in Srini C

      Hi Rachna. devil and deep sea is right. Please see my response to Pradeep’s comment.

      What is divinity then? Isn’t divinity another word for godliness? How would God behave in this situation? In fact, he deals with this scenario every moment. It’s interesting when you pretend that the question has to be answered by some one else, like say, God.. or the Pope.. or the government. I think we’ll be surprised how the answers change.

      This is meant to prompt some thought and kind of give us an opportunity to examine our beliefs. Nothing more. Nothing less. :)

  • rationalist

    Why is it less divine if you want to save your own more than you want to save others? Do you mean to say you are a divine person if you are willing to kill your own relative/friend to save five others? How do we know divinity is not partial to relationships?

    I am not sure what made you conclude the following:

    >> That there are powerful evolutionary forces which propel us into horrific acts when it is a matter of survival?

    What’s the horrific act here? The choice is between having five people killed vs. one. When that one was a relative, the more people were reluctant to flip the switch, thereby letting the trolley kill five people instead – if you term this horrific, you must imply that killing one person would not be horrific.

    Killing any number is horrific – but this hypothetical situation was not presented to measure how horrific we are. It simply shows that humans are more caring with known people than the ones we don’t know, and will show the difference when we are “forced” into a bad situation. If not in such forced situations, we don’t go about killing people. That’s all. Let’s not over-dramatize this and call it horrific.

    • http://whatho.in Srini C

      The horrific act is to consciously choose to kill another person and act on that choice. Whether the decision to save five over one is right or not, the act is a horrific one. Here the dilemma is posed between choosing to act versus choosing to let ‘things take their course’. In effect, you are playing God when you intervene. Calling something horrific is not dramatizing. If something is horrific, it’s horrific. Note: I did not use the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Now, those words are dramatic :)

      Also please see responses to Pradeep and Rachna on the divinity aspect.

  • Bhuvana Balaji

    tough question…it depends…I can jump out of the trolley too :)

    • http://whatho.in Srini C

      Yes. That’s what I call thinking out of the trolley!

  • http://whatho.in Srini C

    Thought I’d add a couple of points.
    1. This is an ethical dilemma posed in the form of a simple scenario. There are no right or wrong answers. There are only opinions. A good debate helps clarify why we hold certain opinions and if we should continue to hold them.

    2. The dilemma is one of ‘intervention’ versus ‘letting things take their course’. Our stance on this tells us how much we believe in controlling/being controlled as well as gives us insight on how much we think we’re in control.

    3. There are several variations possible. Since it’s saving 5 people at the cost of *just* one – it seems pretty easy, doesn’t it? Especially when we don’t know that one person. Now try this question on scale: Pretend that you have to sacrifice 1 million people to save a 100 million people. What would you do? Well, Adolf Hitler justified most of his “horrific” acts through a ‘utilitarian’ argument.

    4. Now also pretend that it’s not you who’s flipping the switch. it’s some one else. And one of your family members is among the five. And the other person’s family member is the lone person on the other track. What would you do? Would you wrestle the switch out of the other person’s hand and change the course of events?

    I think these sort of ethical dilemmas – although they don’t have ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers – help us sift through our beliefs and help us understand our own nature. Which is why I shared this along with my own take :)

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