Moral Dilemmas: Doing Trolleys

Philippa Foot, who died this month, is famous for what has become known as “The Trolley Problem.”  This problem, and its numerous variations, is a moral dilemma involving life and death.  According to David Edmonds in Prospect, those who study such problems would be trolleyologists.  Not everyone likes the problems: when Edmonds asked one philosopher about them,  he received the following response: “Sorry, I just don’t do trolleys.”

In memory of Philippa Foot, below I copy a number of trolley problems.  All of which have been taken from Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay, “The Trolley Problem,” published in The Yale Law Journal, Volume 94, No. 6, (May, 1985) pp. 1,395-1,415. Thinking about these problems can make you aware not only of your moral views, but the consistency in your views.  Please comment below on your own answers to these questions, ideally with an explanation as to why you have chosen the answers that you have.

1. The Trolley Driver

You are the driver of a trolley that is speeding towards five men working on the track. The brakes of the train have failed. If you do not do anything you will kill the five workmen. There is a spur of a track leading off to the right and you can change the path of the trolley by turning the trolley on to the spur. However, if you do this, you will kill a workman who was working on that portion of the track. Do you, as the trolley driver, divert the trolley onto the spur?

2. The Bystander at a Switch

The case is similar to case 1: The Trolley Driver.  The difference is that in this example you are not the driver of the trolley, you are a bystander standing near the trolley track and have access to a switch to divert the trolley. If you do nothing then five workmen will be killed. If you decide to flick the switch, you can save the five workmen but the trolley will kill one workman on the spur. Do you flick the switch?

3. The Loop Variant

In this variation, if the trolley continues on its straight path then all five workmen are killed. The trolley can be diverted by pressing a switch and sending the train on a loop.  On the loop there is one exceedingly fat man and he would be killed by the trolley but his weight would stop the trolley progressing any further and killing the other five.  Do you flick the switch onto the loop?  (There is a diagram of this “Loop” variant in Prospect.)

4. The Fat Man

You are standing on a footbridge over a trolley track. The trolley is hurtling towards five workmen and will kill them unless it is stopped. You know that if you push the very fat man standing next to you on the footbridge onto the track, he will be killed by the trolley but the lives of the five workmen will be saved as his weight and bulk will stop the trolley progressing further. Do you push the fat man?

5. The Handrail

This case is similar to case 4 above, but instead of shoving the fat man off the footbridge, you wobble the hand rail that the fat man is leaning on. This will cause the fat man to fall off the footbridge and onto the track. Is it permissible to wobble the handrail?

6. Nailfile

The facts are similar to case 2, bystander at the switch with one variant. You need to use a sharp tool to flick the switch. The only sharp took available is a nailfile and the nailfile belongs to the person on the spur.  Do you use the nailfile and flick the switch?

7. The Mayor

This is another variant on the bystander at the switch problem outlined in case 2 above. Here you are the Mayor. You once guaranteed in your official capacity that no trains would ever be turned on to the track on the spur. As a result of this guarantee, convalescents at a nearby city hospital often ate lunch on a picnic table covering the track. You are a bystander at the switch as a train hurtles down and will kill five people. This can be prevented by flicking the switch and sending it down the spur killing the picnicker. Do you flick the switch?

8. Transplant

You are an excellent surgeon who performs transplants and your operations are always successful. You have five patients who will die today unless they receive certain transplants. One needs a heart, two each need a lung each and two need a kidney each. There are no organs available. A healthy patient walks into the clinic for his annual check up. His organs match exactly the required organs for the other patients. He refuses you permission to cut him up and distribute his organs, should you proceed anyway and cut him up to save five people?

9. Transplant’

A surgeon who was expert at performing transplant operations that are always successful deliberately caused organ ailments of five of his patients (1 with a heart ailment, 2 with lung ailments and two with kidney ailments) by injecting them with a chemical in order to inherit from them.  The five are all likely to die as a result of his actions but he now repents.  Should he operate on the one to save the five?

10. Hospital

There are five patients in hospital whose lives can be saved by the production of a certain gas. However, by doing so, some lethal fumes will be released into the next room where a patient who is unable to be moved will die. Is it permissible to produce the gas?

11. Hospital’

The reason five in the hospital are at risk of dying is because the ceiling of their room is likely to fall down and kill them. It has nothing to do with their illnesses which are not life threatening. The only way to prevent this is to pump a ceiling-support-mechanism. This will save the roof from falling down but would release lethal fumes killing one person in the next room. Should the ceiling-support-mechanism be pumped?

12. Hospital’’

The lethal fumes come from a basement next door. They are headed to the room of five. The fumes can be deflected to the room of one. Should they be deflected?

13. The Villain

A villain walks into the hospital that you work in and blackmails you. He says that unless you release lethal fumes into the room of one, he would cause a ceiling to collapse on a room of five killing everyone in the room. Do you release the fumes?