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The Trolley Problem: A Moral Dilemma

Updated: 5 days ago

Written by Ardil Ulucay

The Trolley Problem and the History Behind it

The Trolley Problem, introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967, tests moral intuitions related to various ethical principles. Many philosophers and psychologists have created different scenarios to further examine these intuitions and conventional moral beliefs. This problem is significant in medical ethics, given that doctors often face life-and-death decisions such as this one.

Imagine that you’re standing near a line of train tracks, then you suddenly see an out-of-control trolley speeding toward five people who are tied up on the train tracks and are unable to move. There's no way to escape and if you don’t take action, they’ll soon be turned into mush by the upcoming trolley. You are standing next to a lever that can switch the trolley onto a different track, but there’s one person who is tied up on that line of tracks as well. If you pull the lever, you’ll save five people, but you would have to sacrifice the man.

The scenario creates an interesting moral dilemma: Should you pull the lever to save five people while sacrificing one of them, or should you do nothing and be a bystander which would ultimately lead to the death of five people without any direct involvement in this hellish dilemma? Well according to statistics, most people wouldn’t hesitate to pull the lever to save those five people even if it meant sacrificing that one person. [1 , 2 ]

The Fat Man

Let’s change this up a little. Now, imagine that you are standing on a bridge directly over the train tracks. You suddenly spot the same out-of-control trolley hurtling toward five people who are tied up on the train tracks and are also unable to move. The trolley will go directly under the bridge you are currently standing on. Then, you spot a really fat person leaning against the edge of the bridge, cluelessly looking at the people tied up on the train tracks. Would you push the man down and block the crevice that the train would be passing by, knowing that the fat person will die but the other five will survive?

Well, this time, most of the people answering this question would say that they wouldn't do it. But why? Aren't the results the same as the previous one? Some people agree that there is no difference since the result is ultimately the same: one person dies while the other five survive. However, this time, we introduce a twist to the scenario that adds complexity to this dilemma. The fat person is not directly in the path of the trolley. Instead, they are merely leaning against the bridge's edge, oblivious to the impending danger. This variation raises questions about the moral responsibility of actively and physically pushing someone to their death, even if it leads to saving more lives. It challenges us since there would be blood directly on our hands now.

Many philosophers have tried to come up with alternative explanations to the dilemma, but to this day, there is no universally agreed-upon answer. The Trolley Problem continues to challenge our moral intuitions and spark debates among ethicists and philosophers. It remains a fascinating exploration of the complexities of ethical decision-making. But still, in the end, there is only one question that you need to answer: Would you sacrifice a life to save five others? [2, 3]


  1. The National Library of Medicine, Medical ethics and the trolley problem by Gabrial Andrade

  2. Harvard Kennedy School, The Trolley Problem Mysteries

  3. Kamm, Frances The Trolley Problem Mysteries (The 2013 Berkeley Tanner Lectures and Responses to Commentators). Oxford University Press, 2015.


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