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Re-examining the trolley vignette: when is sacrificing the five acceptable?

Updated: May 27



A trolley's careening down the track. The driver has passed out and no one else is on board to pull the brake and stop the trolley. You notice the runaway trolley picking up speed and heading down the track. If it's not diverted to a sidetrack, it'll kill the five workers on the track ahead. There's a switch that, if pulled, will divert the trolley onto a side track where only one person is on the track. Do you pull the switch?


If you're like a majority of people in several empirical studies on the matter, you will choose to divert the trolley onto the sidetrack by pulling the switch. Kwame Anthony Appiah has given a nice summary of the work in a chapter of his Experiments in Ethics (2008).


The intuition behind the decision to pull the switch in the trolley problem is something like one person ought to be sacrificed to save five people. The fewer the number of people who have to die the better! Is there a way of rewriting the Trolley problem in such a way that the folk have the opposite intuition? Is it possible for us to have the intuition that: one should sacrifice the five to save the one?


Perhaps we could flip the intuition if the individual was important enough to people. Think of people like Mother Theresa or Pope Francis. They may do so much good and bring such happiness into the world that we cannot but help think that any five people should be sacrificed to save the one.


The vignette below tries to capture the intuition opposite of the one we have with the original trolley problem.


Jones is a soldier in Smith's platoon. Smith's platoon is scheduled to go on a mission. Before the mission, Smith, a military officer, is notified that Jones' only brother had been killed in another operation. Smith tells Jones the bad news, but Jones decides to go on the mission anyway.


During the mission, Smith sees an enemy unit moving quickly toward Jones' position. Smith knows that, if he does nothing, Jones will be killed. Smith can order five of his men to move between the enemy and Jones (call this position A). If Smith orders the men to move into position A, their moving into position A will draw fire from another location and all five men will be killed. But Jones will be able to escape and he will be saved.


Should Smith order the five men into position A?


Given this question, I suspect that a number of study participants would choose to say that Smith should order the five men to help Jones escape. It may not be a significant majority because they may feel that the five shouldn't put their lives in danger to save the one. Others might view that the five sticking together have a better chance of surviving the enemy onslaught if they stick together and save Jones. Because of these other possibilities, it may be helpful instead to test respondents for their views concerning the morality of Smith's action.


So, instead of asking the yes/no question above, we replace it with the following paragraph:


Thus, Smith can refrain from ordering five of his men into position A, in which case Jones will die but the five other soldiers will not die; or Smith can order the five men to move into position A, in which case the five people will die but Jones will not die.


Questions (How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?):


It is morally wrong for Smith to order the five men into position.


It is morally wrong for Smith to refrain from ordering the five men into position.


If Smith orders the five men into position A, he will have saved Jones's life.


If Smith orders the five men into position A, he will kill the five men.


If Smith orders the five men into position A, he will intentionally kill the five men.


If Smith orders the five men into position A, he is morally responsible for the death of the five men.


The battleground vignette suffers from some problems, so maybe altering the vignette to address the dilemma in the trolley situation will likely result in some good data.


In the trolley problem, the switch operator is presented with a dilemma. Do I save the one and sacrifice the five, or do I save the five and sacrifice the one? Neither potential outcome is favourable because someone will die. But most favour saving the five over the one than saving the one over the five. If I had to speculate why they answered in just that way, I would think that they believe that one person's dying for the five is a better option because fewer people have to die. It's consequentialist reasoning.


But I want to show that some trolley-like situations elicit a different response. I want to prove (in some weak sense) that a majority intuition is to sacrifice the five for saving the one.


In the battleground situation, I tried to show that people are apt to respond by sacrificing the five to save the one. Many stories remind me of this reaction, e.g., Saving Private Ryan (1997). Many people are sacrificed to save Private Ryan. But the major problem with the battlefield is its emotional temperature. This is what makes it unlike the trolley problem where the emotional temperature is relatively low. Few people are concerned with either a runaway trolley, the one, or the five.


Let's lower the emotional temperature to see if we can reverse the trolley problem intuition. This one, of course, has its own problems too. The vignette elicits a contradictory reaction because investing in A will result in the same number of employees out of work as B, C, D, E, and F combined, and there is greater reward for the company if only A survives.


Mr. Gates is a billionaire, and he wants to invest $1 million in a particular business niche. In this niche, there are six businesses. Mr. Gates financial advisor tells him that an initial investment in Company A will require all of Mr. Gates $1 million. But an initial investment of $1 million in Companies B, C, D, E, and F will be able to be spread evenly across the five companies. A has the same number of employees as B, C, D, E, and F combined. If Mr. Gates invests in A, then B, C, D, E, and F will go out of business and all of its employees will be out of work. If Mr. Gates invests in B, C, D, E, and F, then A will go out of business and all of its employees will be out of work.


How strongly do you agree with the following statements?


It is morally wrong for Mr. Gates to invest in Company A.


It is morally wrong for Mr. Gates to refrain from investing in Company A.


If Mr. Gates invests in company A, then he will have saved the employees of company A.


If Mr. Gates invests in company A, then he will have forced the employees of B, C, D, E, and F out of work.


If Mr. Gates invests in company A, he will intentionally force employees of B, C, D, E, and F out of work.

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