Ethics 101: One vs. the Many in The Trolley Problem


Location image of event venue


"Our shared task is to live decently, compassionately, and caringly in the world we inhabit. "

While we all want to do the right thing, it can be wickedly difficult to figure out what exactly the right thing is on the merits, much less once our own feelings and egos are involved.

The thought experiment called the trolley problem and in particular comparing its variations are a great way to tease out what is involved in our decision making so that we can think more clearly when the time comes.

This becomes even more critical when we allow computers to make ethical decisions such as in driverless cars.

Come join us as we listen to a quick rundown of the issues at play followed by a discussion at the Martin Luther King Jr Recreation Center And Aquatic Center. The Center is ADA compliant and we will be in multipurpose room 3 on the first floor. Look for the sign! We may also go grab food after. There is plenty of parking but we have to be out of the room by 2 PM so please arrive on time!

The Trolley Problem:

You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options:

1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option?

90% of everyday respondents will choose to flip the switch. However, change the problem and the solution changes for most people.

In the Fat Man version, there's a fat man on a bridge in front of you who can stop the trolley from hitting the five people, do you push them? Fewer people will do that. Even fewer will doom a loved one, and the fewest number of folks will doom themselves.

Given more information about the person or people that should be doomed, the equation changes again. What if the Fat Man is the person who set up the whole situation? What if you find out they're part of an opposing political party?

Here's a humorous exploration of the trolley problem in The Good Place (contains spoilers):

Ethical living is the philosophy of making decisions for daily life which take into account ethics and moral values.

Come and let's learn from one another; building forward one step at a time.