No, the trolley problem has nothing to do with bewildered tourists in San Francisco who don’t know which trolley to take: the Powell/Hyde line or the California/Van Ness line? Rather, the trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics or moral psychology. The trolley problem is set up like this: Imagine there is a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks and you are standing some distance off, right next to a lever that controls the direction of the tracks. In the lever’s current position the trolley will travel straight, leading to five people standing on the main track; if you pull the lever, it will divert the trolley to a side track where one person is standing. What is the ethical thing to do? Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill five people? Or pull the lever, diverting the trolley to a side track where it will kill one person? Not an easy decision to make is it?
In ethics, the trolley problem sets up a clash between two schools of moral thought: deontology and utilitarianism. A deontologist would argue that the morality of an action is based on whether an action itself is right or wrong under a set of rules, rather than the consequences of the action. In short, the action is more critical than the consequences. The utilitarian would argue the opposite: that an action is right as long as it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If you are a fan of the original sci-fi series, Star Trek, from the late 1960s, you will recognize the theme of utilitarianism that is woven into many episodes: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” We can paraphrase the Star Trek aphorism to align more closely to true utilitarianism: “The happiness of the many outweigh the happiness of the few.” And in contrast with the deontologist, the consequences are more critical than the act.
On another level, the trolley problem represents a Cornelian dilemma: a dilemma where a person must choose between two courses of action that either of which will have a harmful effect on themselves or others. The phrase is named after Pierre Corneille, a French dramatist. In his play, Le Cid (1636), Rodrigue, the protagonist, must choose between seeking revenge and losing his beloved or forego revenge and losing his honor.
So what are you — a deontologist or a utilitarian? What would you do in this difficult situation? Philosophers and psychologist are fascinated with this moral dilemma, and many studies and surveys have been done to study how people respond to the trolley problem. In many surveys, 90% of the respondents choose to pull the lever and sacrifice one live to save the five people. A survey of professional philosophers conducted in 2009 revealed that 70% of them would pull the lever, 8% would not, and 22% could not answer or offered another view.
Why is the trolley problem relevant now? As the COVID-10 pandemic overwhelms medical facilities and supplies, doctors find themselves at the very levers of disease’s tracks. Doctors have reported that they face agonizing decisions about which patients to treat and save, and those not to treat which will result in death. In most, if not all cases, doctors are making utilitarian decisions: the lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few.
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