POWERPOINT SHOW AVAILABLE
Click HERE to download a narrated PowerPoint Show that includes animated charts for the Runaway Trolley thought experiment. After the Runaway Trolley is explored, the charts continue and apply the ethical lesson to two real-world
issues: 1) Criminal Recidivism and 2) End of Life Issues. This posting covers the Runaway Trolley only. Subsequent postings in this series will cover Criminal Recidivism and End of Life Issues. The PowerPoint Show is based on a talk I gave to The Philosophy Club at The Villages, FL, on 04 February 2011. NOTE: The Powerpoint Show is now Narrated and plays and advances automatically after download to your computer.
RUNAWAY TROLLEY - PART 1 - The Siding Guy
The graphic illustrates the issue. A trolley has lost its brakes and is roaring down a hill. If nothing is done (FATE) the trolley will crash into the station at the foot of the hill, certainly killing at least five people.
There happens to be a junction and a siding. If that trolley can be switched over to the siding, the trolley will certainly stop safely in a pile of sand, and the five or more people on the trolley and in the station will not be killed.
YOU happen to be standing by the junction and see a switch that may be thrown to redirect the trolley from the Main Line to the Siding.
You are about to throw the switch (ACT) when you notice there is one person who happens to be sitting in the sand pile and that person will certainly be killed if the trolley is switched to the siding. What should you do?
NOTE: This type of thought experiment is intended to illustrate an ethical concept, so it is somewhat artificial. To play this game, you MUST ASSUME that all the facts stated are absolutely certain and, further, that all the people involved are total strangers and completely innocent. Therefore, you cannot avoid the ethical issue and suggest you could shout a warning to the guy on the siding - he is too far away to hear you. You cannot defer to a trolley company employee or another passer-by who happens to be at the junction - you are totally alone. You cannot phone the trolley company - time is short and you must let FATE take its toll or ACT and save several lives.
OK, now, what is THE RIGHT THING TO DO? Should you do nothing (FATE) or throw that switch (ACT)? Please decide now, before you read on.
RUNAWAY TROLLEY PART 2 - The Fat Man
The situation is similar to Part 1, the trolley is roaring down the track and five people will die when it certainly crashes into the station. But, this time, there is no siding. OY!
However, there is a footbridge that crosses over the trolley tracks, and, guess what, YOU happen to be on that footbridge. You see the trolley approaching the footbridge and you realize that if you do nothing (FATE) at least five people will die when the trolley crashes into the station.
Thinking quickly, you imagine yourself jumping from the footbridge onto the tracks in the path of the trolley. If you do so, you will certainly die but there is a chance your body will slow the trolley and save some or all the lives. Should you jump? You will die but five or more will live!
You notice that there is a very fat man standing on the other side of the footbridge, looking towards the station. He is totally unaware of the emergency, and there is no time to talk to him about it. He happens to be standing right above the trolley track and all it would take would be an easy nudge and he would tumble onto the tracks. He is so heavy he will certainly stop the trolley and save all the people, but, sadly, he will certainly die. He will die but five or more will live!
OK, now, what is THE RIGHT THING TO DO? Should you do nothing (FATE) or nudge that fat man down onto the tracks (ACT)? Please decide now, before you read on.
ANALYSIS AND PAST RESULTS
This problem, and versions suitable for "primitive" societies who do not know what a trolley is, has been posed to tens of thousands of people. I will tell you the remarkably consistent results further down in this posting.
Principle of Double Effect
But first, we need to learn about the Principle of Double Effect. It holds that:
You may take action which has bad side effects, but deliberately intending harm (even for good causes), is ethically wrong.Thus, it is OK to act if your intent is to save many lives, even if, indirectly, some few lives are lost. This clearly applies to the Runaway Trolley Part 1 - the Siding Guy. Your INTENT is to save many people, and the Siding Guy's death, though clearly forseeable, is an UNintended side effect.
It is similar to the aircraft pilot whose plane is certain to crash. If he allows FATE to take its course, the airplane will crash into the center of a large metropolitan area, killing hundreds of people. If he ACTS he can divert the airplane to a less populated place, preferably a deserted area, but, if that choice is not available, he should crash into an area of single-family homes rather than apartment buildings.
Conversely, it is NOT OK to act if your intent is to kill someone, even if, indirectly, many lives will be saved. This clearly applies to the Runaway Trolley Part 2 - the Fat Man. Your INTENT is to kill the fat man, and the saving of the many lives on the trolley and in the station, is a side effect of a wrong intent.
(A strict Utilitarian might have trouble with that argument. What if killing one innocent person was certain to save 100 lives? 1,000? 1,000,000???)
This type of reasoning applies to an ethical thought experient called the Surgeon and the Stranger. A Surgeon at a hospital has five patients, each of whom needs a different organ transplant (heart, lung, etc.) or they will certainly die. There are absolutely no organs available from any normal source in time to save their lives.
Then a total Stranger checks into the hospital emergency room for a minor problem. The Surgeon learns that he is a drifter, with no relatives or friends, and no one in the world knows where he is or even cares. And, guess what, his blood type happens to match all five patients who need transplants. Your compassionate nurse suggests they fake the medical record of the Stranger to claim he died unexpectedly and they use his organs to save the five patients who need them desperately. "The five people who will die if we do not ACT have lived in our town for their whole lives. No one will miss this worthless Stranger. God must have sent that drifter to us for this purpose!" she says.
Well, as tempting as it is, the Principle of Double Effect says the Surgeon should let FATE take its course and not ACT. What do you think?
The Runaway Trolley was presented to The Philosophy Club a year ago and everyone (100% of the 45 people in attendance) would ACT (throw the switch) to save five or more innocents despite the death of the Siding Guy. In the case of the Fat Man, 7% (three of the 45) would ACT (nudge him off the footbridge) while 93% would let FATE take its course.
A BBC poll found similar results, with 77% ACTing to save five or more innocents to the demise of the Siding Guy and only 27% ACTing to nudge the Fat Man to his demise, despite that opportunity to save five or more innocents.
NOTE: Subsequent postings in this series will extend this lesson to the real-world situations of: Criminal Recidivism and End of Life Issues.