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The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics, first introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967, but also extensively analysed by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Peter Unger, and Frances Kamm as recently as 1996. Outside of the domain of traditional philosophical discussion, the trolley problem has been a significant feature in the fields of cognitive science and, more recently, of neuroethics. It has also been a topic on various TV shows dealing with human psychology.
The general form of the problem is this: There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You do not have the ability to operate the lever in a way that would cause the trolley to derail without loss of life (for example, holding the lever in an intermediate position so that the trolley goes between the two sets of tracks, or pulling the lever after the front wheels pass the switch, but before the rear wheels do). You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills 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 correct choice?
Foot's original formulation of the problem ran as follows:
A utilitarian view asserts that it is obligatory to steer to the track with one man on it. According to simple utilitarianism, such a decision would be not only permissible, but, morally speaking, the better option (the other option being no action at all). An alternate viewpoint is that since moral wrongs are already in place in the situation, moving to another track constitutes a participation in the moral wrong, making one partially responsible for the death when otherwise no one would be responsible. An opponent of action may also point to the incommensurability of human lives. Under some interpretations of moral obligation, simply being present in this situation and being able to influence its outcome constitutes an obligation to participate. If this were the case, then deciding to do nothing would be considered an immoral act if one values five lives more than one.
The initial trolley problem becomes more interesting when it is compared to other moral dilemmas.
One such is that offered by Judith Jarvis Thomson:
Resistance to this course of action seems strong; most people who approved of sacrificing one to save five in the first case do not approve in the second sort of case. This has led to attempts to find a relevant moral distinction between the two cases.
One clear distinction is that in the first case, one does not intend harm towards anyone – harming the one is just a side effect of switching the trolley away from the five. However, in the second case, harming the one is an integral part of the plan to save the five. This is an argument Shelly Kagan considers, and ultimately rejects, in The Limits of Morality.
A claim can be made that the difference between the two cases is that in the second, you intend someone's death to save the five, and this is wrong, whereas in the first, you have no such intention. This solution is essentially an application of the doctrine of double effect, which says that you may take action which has bad side effects, but deliberately intending harm (even for good causes) is wrong.
Act utilitarians deny this. So do some non-utilitarians such as Peter Unger, who rejects that it can make a substantive moral difference whether you bring the harm to the one or whether you move the one into the path of the harm. Note, however, that rule utilitarians do not have to accept this, and can say that pushing the fat man over the bridge violates a rule to which adherence is necessary for bringing about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Another distinction is that the first case is similar to a pilot in an airplane that has lost power and is about to crash and currently heading towards a heavily populated area. Even if he knows for sure that innocent people will die if he redirects the plane to a less populated area – people who are "uninvolved" – he will actively turn the plane without hesitation. It may well be considered noble to sacrifice your own life to protect others, but morally or legally allowing murder of an innocent person in order to save five people may be insufficient justification.[clarification needed]
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The further development of this example involves the case, where the fat man is, in fact, the villain who put these five people in peril. In this instance, pushing the villain to his death, especially to save five innocent people, seems not just moral, but, to some,[who?] also just and even an imperative. This is essentially related to another famous thought experiment, known as ticking time bomb scenario, which forces one to choose between two morally questionable acts. Several papers argue that ticking time bomb scenario is a mere variation of the trolley problem.
The claim that it is wrong to use the death of one to save five, runs into a problem with variants like this:
The only difference between this case and the original trolley problem is that an extra piece of track has been added, which seems a trivial difference (especially since the trolley won't travel down it anyway). So, if we originally decided that it is permissible or necessary to flip the switch, intuition may suggest that the answer should not have changed. However, in this case, the death of the one actually is part of the plan to save the five.
The rejoining variant may not be fatal to the "using a person as a means" argument. This has been suggested by M. Costa in his 1987 article "Another Trip on the Trolley", where he points out that if we fail to act in this scenario we will effectively be allowing the five to become a means to save the one. If we do nothing, then the impact of the trolley into the five will slow it down and prevent it from circling around and killing the one. As in either case, some will become a means to saving others, then we are permitted to count the numbers. This approach requires that we downplay the moral difference between doing and allowing.
However, this line of reasoning is no longer applicable if a slight change is made to the track arrangements such that the one person was never in danger to begin with, even if the 5 people were absent. Or even with no track changes, if the one person is high on the gradient while the five are low, such that the trolley cannot reach the one. So the question has not been answered.
Even in the situation where the people aren't tied down due to a criminal act, but simply happen to be there without the ability to warn them, the out-of-control trolley is similar to the out-of-control airplane. Either 5/500 or 1/100 people are going to die as a result of the accident already in progress, and it is important to minimize the loss of life, despite the fact that the 1/100 are effectively being "used" to spare the life of the 5/500. The 100 people (and their property) in the less-densely-populated area do in fact stop the plane too. Responsibility for this goes back to any criminal negligence that caused the accident to occur in the first place.
Here is an alternative case, due to Judith Jarvis Thomson, containing similar numbers and results, but without a trolley:
Unger argues extensively against traditional non-utilitarian responses to trolley problems. This is one of his examples:
Responses to this are partly dependent on whether the reader has already encountered the standard trolley problem (since there is a desire to keep one's responses consistent), but Unger notes that people who have not encountered such problems before are quite likely to say that, in this case, the proposed action would be wrong.
Unger therefore argues that different responses to these sorts of problems are based more on psychology than ethics – in this new case, he says, the only important difference is that the man in the yard does not seem particularly "involved". Unger claims that people therefore believe the man is not "fair game", but says that this lack of involvement in the scenario cannot make a moral difference.
Unger also considers cases which are more complex than the original trolley problem, involving more than just two results. In one such case, it is possible to do something which will (a) save the five and kill four (passengers of one or more trolleys and/or the hammock-sleeper), (b) save the five and kill three, (c) save the five and kill two, (d) save the five and kill one, or (e) do nothing and let five die. Most naïve subjects presented with this sort of case, claims Unger, will choose (d), to save the five by killing one, even if this course of action involves doing something very similar to killing the fat man, as in Thomson's case above.
This scenario is similar to the fact that whenever a crime is in progress and someone calls the police, even though it is known well in advance that calls to police each year end up creating pedestrian and motorist deaths due to accidents, very few people would consider disbanding the police to ensure that no innocents should die en route to a crime scene. In the case where the five aren't tied down due to a criminal act, it still falls into the category of diverting a crashing plane into a less-densely-populated area.
The trolley problem was first imported into cognitive science from philosophy in a systematic way by Hauser, Mikhail, et al, They hypothesized that factors such as gender, age, education level, and cultural background would have little influence on the judgments people make, in part because those judgments are generated by an unconscious “moral grammar” that is analogous in some respects to the unconscious linguistic grammars that have been claimed by Noam Chomsky et al to support ordinary language use ( this latter claim regarding language has been strongly rebutted by Dan Everett and by Evans and Levinson.) It should be noted that the data in Hauser, Mikhail et al's 2007 paper only contains 33 individuals brought up in a non-English-speaking educational system. The main author, Marc Hauser, was subsequently sanctioned by his then employer, Harvard University, in eight (unrelated) cases of gross research malpractice and data falsification, which arguably makes the data in any case unreliable. Subsequent cross-cultural research has found many apparent counterexamples to this idea of 'Universal Moral Grammar'
In taking a neuroscientific approach to the trolley problem, Joshua Greene under Jonathan Cohen decided to examine the nature of brain response to moral and ethical conundra through the use of fMRI. In their more well-known experiments, Greene and Cohen analyzed subjects' responses to the morality of responses in both the trolley problem involving a switch, and a footbridge scenario analogous to the fat man variation of the trolley problem. Their hypothesis suggested that encountering such conflicts evokes both a strong emotional response as well as a reasoned cognitive response that tend to oppose one another. From the fMRI results, they have found that situations highly evoking a more prominent emotional response such as the fat man variant would result in significantly higher brain activity in brain regions associated with response conflict. Meanwhile, more conflict-neutral scenarios, such as the relatively disaffected switch variant, would produce more activity in brain regions associated with higher cognitive functions. The potential ethical ideas being broached, then, revolve around the human capacity for rational justification of moral decision making.
The trolley problem has been the subject of many surveys with approximately 90% of respondents have chosen to kill the one and save the five.  If the situation is modified where the one sacrificed for the five was a relative or reproductive partner, respondents are much less likely to be willing to sacrifice their life. 
In 2012, participants made their choices while wearing a head mounted display device that displayed virtual avatars of the trolley victims, and gave a real time simulation of the approaching vehicle. As the vehicle approached, the virtual avatars in the path would begin to scream until impact. Subjects who were more emotionally aroused during the test were less likely to kill the one. 
A 2009 survey published in a 2013 paper by David Bourget and David Chalmers shows that 68% of professional philosophers would switch (sacrifice the one individual to save five lives) in the case of the trolley problem, 8% would not switch, and the remaining 24% had another view or could not answer.
|This section requires expansion with: Description of the legend. (February 2012)|
In an urban legend that has been making the rounds since at least the mid-1960s, the decision must be made by a drawbridge keeper who must choose between sacrificing a passenger train or his own four-year-old son. There is a 2003 Czech film Most or The Bridge (USA) which deals with a similar plot. This version is often drawn as a deliberate allegory to the belief among some Christians that God sacrificed his son, Jesus Christ.