The trolley ethics problem with no solution.

“The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics. The general form of the problem is this: There is a runaway trolley barreling 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. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. 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 most ethical choice?”

I just heard about this and thought I’d give it a try.

Doing nothing is indirectly wrong because 5 people lose their lives.

Pulling the lever is directly wrong because 1 person loses their life.

There are many many explanations and scenarios of which I don’t want to waste time going over. Best left to an ethics professor. My answer? Hmmm..

First I would think to myself. Well, if I run onto the tracks and tried to untie the five people, starting from the person furthest away from the train, I would have the greatest chance of saving a person’s life. Because I don’t waste time pulling the lever and I assume that the train will be slowed by the first four people it crushes.

If I pull the lever then run to try and untie the one person, then I’ve wasted time pulling the lever, and my chances of successfully untying the person are less than the chances of simply running to the five.

Then I’d think to myself, both of these are stupid ways to think about this problem. The chances of me successfully untying a person are slim to none. Most likely none. And the train is moving fast I assume.

So I only have one shot.

I will attempt to pull the lever, exactly as the train passes the tracks where the tracks split into two. I only have one chance at it. And I actually cause more risk in doing so.

Because if I pull too early or two late, then I risk the train derailing off the entire tracks. And it would actually crush all 6 people.

So maybe if the train were far away I would practice pulling the lever a few times to time my reflexes. If not, then I only have one opportunity to either save all 6 or none at all.

This is still a moral dilemma, because I can guaranteed save 1 person if I sacrifice the 5 people for sure. I exchange 1 guaranteed life for 6 potential deaths based on my reflexes at the moment which the train passes the two tracks.

How do I resolve this? Well, I would…

Yell to the one person tied on the second track. I yell to them “I’m going to try to save the 5 people over there! This is going to risk your life, are you okay with this?! I only have one try to pull the lever at exactly the right time to derail the train in a way that doesn’t crush all 6 of you.”

So then I yell to all 6 “All you all ok with my plan? We risk all 6 lives for the chance to save all 6 lives. Either that or that man gets saved guaranteed.”

At this point, we take a vote by yelling. Five people will vote between 2 choices:

  1. Do not try the plan. Guaranteed they die, and 1 person lives.
  2. Yes try the plan. There is a chance they live, and the other person has a chance of dying and a chance of living.

The 6th person on the other track has two choices:

  1. Do not try the plan. Guaranteed they live, but the guilt of 5 deaths is theirs.
  2. Yes try the plan. They risk their own life to save potentially 5 others.

In either case, I choose not to vote. By choosing not to vote, I free myself of the moral dilemma. If I don’t vote, I left the lives of the tied up people in their own hands. All 6 voted, I go with their majority vote.

I am now free of any moral dilemma.

The only dilemma I have, is whether or not I am able to pull the lever at exactly the right point in time to derail the train as to not crush all 6 passengers.

I put all my effort into trying to make it happen.

If I succeed, yes!

If I fail, then they went with their decision and I did the best that I could.

What would I have chosen? If I could choose for them? I do not choose anything. I let them choose. It is obvious, what they would choose. I assume a 5 to 1 majority in most of the cases, and a 6 to 0 consensus at least some of the time.

The only way I would not do anything, is if at least 4 people choose a guaranteed death to grant the 6th person a guaranteed life. This is still a possibility, but then we would have 4 to 5 martyrs.

Maybe some of the time, only 1 person will be guaranteed life. I do not know if this would happen. That is why this is not my moral dilemma to take.

Hence why I do not choose. I let the 6 decide their own fates.

That is my solution to the trolley problem.

Lets hope I am able to pull the lever at exactly the right moment in time.


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