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Thread: The Trolley Problem

  1. #1

    Lightbulb The Trolley Problem

    Just a fun morality thread. Share your opinions and intuitions!

    The Trolley Problem:

    Imagine there's a run-away train, or a 'trolley' of some sort that's going down a track. Imagine also that an evil villain has tied 5 people down on the track.
    Fortunately you are near a switch that makes the train/trolley switch tracks, where only one person is tied down.

    See this image:


    The question is: Is it acceptable to make the train switch tracks?
    Another question is: Is it morally required to make the train switch tracks; would it be wrong to leave it?

    Is it right to kill the one to save the five?

    Contrast this to the organ transplant problem:

    A doctor has 5 patients who need organs, which if they fail to receive they will die, and the doctor has no available donors. Two patients needs lungs, two need kidneys and one needs a heart.
    A perfectly healthy man goes to the doctor for a check-up, and the doctor realises that the man is a perfect match for donating his organs to the 5!

    The question is: is it acceptable for the doctor to kill the healthy guy in order to save the people needing the organs?

    Is it right to kill the one to save the five?

    Most people think that in the trolley case it's okay to switch tracks, whereas most people think that the doctor would be wrong to kill his healthy patient.
    If you think this, why do think this?

    The point of this exercise is that we want to kill the one in the first case, and not kill the one in the second. But coming up with reasons for this can be difficult!

    Give it a go!

  2. #2

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    The way I see it, the situations are completely different (not because one is a trolley and one is a doctor) because the everybody is in hazards way with the trolley example, whereas only 5 people are in hazards way in the doctor example. Being that the match is perfectly healthy it would be extremely immoral for a doctor to kill them to save the five, seeing that there is still a chance that another match may come up for the five. However, with the train example, most people would see it as the obvious decision to sacrifice one person who is already in hazards way (for the most part) to save the lives of five other people. It's hard for me to explain my exact train of thought here, but I'm still kinda waking up.

  3. #3

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    Quote Originally Posted by Charlie F View Post
    Imagine there's a run-away train, or a 'trolley' of some sort that's going down a track. Imagine also that an evil villain has tied 5 people down on the track.
    Fortunately you are near a switch that makes the train/trolley switch tracks, where only one person is tied down.
    That's not the full problem: the solitary person is someone very close to you, such as a child, parent or loved one. That spices things up a bit more.

  4. #4

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    If you have a situation where a death is absolutely going to occur (either one or five on the runaway trolley) the moral imperative is to minimize the loss of life. It's not that we WANT to kill the one, but losing one life is preferable to losing five in the list of available options.

    The outright killing of the healthy patient for the express purpose of harvesting his juicy bits is really clearly wrong. Life is sacrosanct. Beside the fact that murder is looked down upon by most societies, the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take upon gaining their credentials says something to the effect of "first, do no harm". The focus of medicine is to heal the sick and repair the injured using all the tools available to them within the ethical and legal bounds set by the societies where they live, if their internal moral compass isn't enough to guide them properly.


    Now, what if the five on the tracks are hardened criminals, and the one is an innocent?

  5. #5

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    I would hold the switch in the halfway position and derail the trolly, hopefully saving all six lives.
    If the trolley was full of people there is chance of injury or death but that choice is preferable to certain death on the tracks.

    Sometimes the solution is " none of the above choices ".

    Don't let conventional thinking limit your choice of a solution, explore all options.

  6. #6
    Butterfly Mage

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    Quote Originally Posted by briefboy View Post
    The way I see it, the situations are completely different (not because one is a trolley and one is a doctor) because the everybody is in hazards way with the trolley example, whereas only 5 people are in hazards way in the doctor example. Being that the match is perfectly healthy it would be extremely immoral for a doctor to kill them to save the five, seeing that there is still a chance that another match may come up for the five. However, with the train example, most people would see it as the obvious decision to sacrifice one person who is already in hazards way (for the most part) to save the lives of five other people. It's hard for me to explain my exact train of thought here, but I'm still kinda waking up.
    You said it better than I was going to. The two situations are completely different. In the trolley example, doing *nothing* will result in at least one death and not more than four. In the medical example, you could actually have six deaths (the murdered healthy person, and the five organ recipients if they all die from post-surgical complications).

    Needless to say, I would not want to be in the position of the switch operator, but I suppose I would have to choose to kill one instead of four. Alternatively, I could try to put a parked car on the tracks and hope that the engineer survives the resultant train derail.

    In the medical situation, there is no way I'd kill a healthy person to save the lives of five people who are already close to death.

  7. #7

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    You can answer a very similar question here, where it will be compared and contrasted to the answers to a short morality quiz you first take. It's a nice way of exploring some of the contradictions and justifications.

    But let me try and answer your question. My instinct is to say that it is not morally right to choose to kill the one to save the five in either situation. I'm not a utilitarian or a consequentialist and I'm not convinced that the idea of a sum total of happiness or good should be used to steer moral questions. Rather I feel that there are certain rules of morality that should be kept to. One of those rues is that everyone has a right to live and that it is always wrong to take the life of another. That leads me to say that you can't weigh peoples' lives against each other and that human life is not commensurable. It's a question of whether the ends justify the means and my feeling is that when you're asking that question the answer is nearly always 'no'.

    Where it gets particularly tricky in the first example is when you consider the question of whether you are morally obligated to save the lives of others when possible. Again the answer to this question depends on whether you accept the concept of a total happiness that can be measured and increased - ie. five lives being saved would increases the total happiness more than one. That's just not quite how I view things; I don't think it is the responsibility of the individual to act to increase the sum total of happiness as much as it is to act by certain moral codes in all circumstances. You establish a principle of morality and carry it out.

    It's a very tough question to consider though, and a good one. Choosing not to divert the trolley may seem counter-intuitive and who knows what I would actually do in any similar situation, but the best I can do is to try and establish a consistent moral code.

  8. #8

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    It is because despite each one involving killing one to save five, there is a crucial difference: In the train one (excluding the unspecified option of derailment) somebody has to die, but in the organ transplant the deaths aren't always imminent.

    However, after having said that, the two situations are still identical - you are actively killing one person who would otherwise have lived, in order to save five people who would otherwise have died. I'm going to admit to thinking they are different situations at first because of that principle, but when you think about it objectively that reason doesn't stand up.

    The only real reason I can think of as for why you could view them differently, is in term of the expectations of the one person. In the train track case, the person is already tied to the track, and could reasonably expect the lever to be pulled in order to save the others (they may even want this), in the organ donor example the patient goes into the hospital expecting to be treated and looked after.
    Therefore in the train situation, it's purely killing one to save five, but in the organ one it is a breach of trust as well as killing one to save five; which I think is the most logical reason to say no to the organ case while saying yes to the train case.

    Of course in the above we assume that all lives are equal, so try this:

    You have a professor who is working on a cure for cancer and is about to make the breakthrough that lets him do it, he is tied to the track with the train approaching.

    You have the choice to pull the lever and instead direct the train towards a tramp who lives on the streets, do you pull it or not?

  9. #9

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    This is simple: where are all the hot women? I'd steer the train AWAY from them, even if it meant derailing the train into Lansing (where it doesn't sound like any hot women are--sorry if you live there).

  10. #10

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    Quote Originally Posted by WoodlandWanderer View Post
    Of course in the above we assume that all lives are equal, so try this:

    You have a professor who is working on a cure for cancer and is about to make the breakthrough that lets him do it, he is tied to the track with the train approaching.
    Hm....exactly what I was going to point out. For me, it would depend on who's tied to the tracks. The professor that can cure cancer is going to save a hell of a lot more lives than 5, so I'd rather have the 5 people die than let the world lose the cure for cancer.

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