Ethics and morality concern all people, however practicality and technicalities are abundant. Indeed, while one might simply quote a religious text, or even simply claim to possess a “gut feeling” for morality, the fact of the matter is neither of those truly provide a concrete, one and done solution to certain situation. One way to showcase the grey area of morality is the Trolley Car Problem. So what is the Trolley Car Problem?
Imagine yourself on a normal day. The weather was nice outside so you decided to walk to the neighborhood grocer. You shopped for awhile, grabbed the items you needed for your famous pasta, found a new gadget that caught your fancy, and even met one of your friend’s on your way to the counter to pay. They seemed in a hurry to leave so you didn’t keep them. You pay and begin the short walk home with a cool wind to your back. What a wonderful life you live… then you see it. Your friend, whom you had just talked to in the store, is firmly attached to the rails of the trolley line that goes through your little town. For a second you stare dumbstruck. How had they managed to get that way in the time it took to check out?! A loud clang rang out from far behind you, causing you to brush aside the thought your world is nothing but a thought experiment. It was the trolley! Immediately your heart begins beating in your throat. This situation has escalated dramatically. Frantically your eyes dart about looking for something, anything that fix this crisis. Then you spot it: a lever! With that you could change the track of the trolley. The relief of having an option removes your searching blindness. You didn’t even need to flick the lever as it was already set to the other line. Before you can feel relieved though it occurs to you to look down the track. Sure enough there’s another 5 strangers tied to the tracks down the line! How is this possible?!
Now you are faced with a conundrum: what is the right answer? Do you flick the level? Not flick it? Run away and hide? Contemplate how your life is a lie for other’s entertainment??? A torrent of possibilities weave a confusing ethical web around whatever you do next. Before we go back to our story and its many and diverse endings though permit me to give you a few details and assumptions made for my conclusions. First, I will assume that there was time for a choice and work off the assumption you will be seen as having more than enough time to take action. Second and in keeping with the spirit of the problem, I will assume you are the only one who has the ability to make a choice in this scenario. Finally, I will assume you are deistic (believes in deity but not necessarily any specific religion) as atheism and morality are logically incompatible and every religion would vary for if your action of choice is moral.
In our first scenario, you see your friend and just can’t pull the lever. The trolley thunders by you, the sounds of 5 separate voices screaming out in pain as their bones are shattered and their bodies cleaved into three pieces. To save time I won’t elaborate on your reasoning as that would complicate the variables at play dramatically. What matters is you chose inaction. Legally, you would be more or less blameless. Morally? Well, from nearly any standpoint you aren’t exactly in the clear. The two factors that determine the morality of the choice are: you bias by knowing your friend, and logic behind inaction. Addressing that one first even though your actions could have saved 5 lives over one by you doing nothing technically you didn’t act immorally… or at least that’s how the argument goes. A very good counter argument to this is that not helping can be the exact same as killing them yourself. So this goes into the moral grey box. For our other argument you fair even worse. We know you knew that person. Anyone with the ability to reason can see how that at the very least would bias you in their favor subconsciously, if not blatantly. This is a moral black. For this ending you have a neutral and a negative argument.
For our next scenario, you pull the level. Your eyes tear up as you watch the trolley lurch over to the junction your friend was on. Their scream tears through your heart, but you did what you thought was best. Well, was it? Let’s examine. This particular choice is arguably the most debated of all outcomes. In this choice you gain a lot of insight into the moral compass of whoever answers, and as such many people will debate on who’s moral compass is pointing towards the true North. As a quick showcase of this, someone who is religious would probably go to kill whoever they knew would go to a positive afterlife in their religion. So if they knew their friend was a believer in the same thing as them they would most likely choose their life over the other 5 hands down. The converse of this is also true: if they knew they did not believe the same as them they may be conflicted to send them to what they perceive to their negative afterlife. This is a neutral argument. Then we simply have the logic. Looking at this situation logically with what we know at the time of choice, five lives are worth more than one. It really can’t be said any differently. To those who would shout “BUT ALL LIFE IS PRICELESS!” even simple math concludes that infinite value times five is more than a simple infinite. This argument for all its questionable morality and shade thrown at it, is a positive. This leaves us with a positive and a neutral argument.
Now you may think this is the end (there are only two ways for the switch to be right?!), but in fact we have one more scenario to consider. Instead of seeing the choice at hand, you see a problem that needs a solution. You have the idea to try and derail the trolley cart. While it may jostle the people within, everyone in the situation would survive. If you succeeded in this is irrelevant. What matters is you tried it, and that is what we will focus on here. You had before you a clear choice: either one or five people were guaranteed to survive. By opting to instead find an alternate path you KNOWINGLY threw that out the window. In such a situation is this gamble justified? Let’s consider this. As we established above ultimately one life is lesser than five. From this is not six lives more than five? Not quite. Both previous scenarios were one’s with a known outcome. Either five people died, or one person died. With this you could save everyone, or conversely get everyone including yourself killed. Even with the generous odds of a 50/50 chance that still comes out to one in two being saved (from a probability stance of course). You can have a probable six or a guaranteed five. Yet again logic tips the scales toward the more tragic route. As terrible as it is, being a hero in a situation like this is not your most sound option. The arguments are positive and negative; a literal white and black contrast. All or nothing. Hero or murderer.
To conclude, this is just a theoretical situation. Ultimately no mental exercise can truly represent all the probabilities of the real universe. The right answer may be any of these, if indeed there is a right answer at all. You may not get a lever, but in your life you make choices all the time. You decide if you want to watch movies all day or study for a test. You decide between working out or staying home. Every choice in your life is yours. Rarely is there a “right” answer to any given problem, and this can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. How you choose to see the choices you make and their impact on your life and the world is up to you.