On Trolley Problems

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice

There’s a philosophical question that people seem to struggle with, commonly called the trolley problem, that I never really got the difficulty of until fairly recently. The original form, the one I was first introduced to, is formulated like so:

You are on a train, and coming up on a junction. The tracks are currently set such that the course the train will follow will run over 5 people tied to the tracks. However, you are able to switch the tracks to a side channel. This alternative course will run over 1 person tied to the tracks. Do you pull the lever to change to the alternate route?

This is excruciatingly clear to me: of course you change routes. The problem reduces to “is it better to kill one person or five?” which has a pretty obvious answer. And so I never understood why there’s any struggle over it. (Incidentally, I am deeply suspicious of philosophers finding ways to argue about nonsense, which perhaps biased me to miss important aspects of the question).

There are extensions of the trolley problem that all retain the basic form: should you kill one person, or kill five? One of these I really struggled with, which is a formation like the following:

A train is barreling, undivertably, toward five people tied on the tracks. You are on an overpass that looks over the tracks. You are standing next to an impossibly fat person who, if you pushed them off the ledge in front of the train, will slow it down sufficiently to save the five trapped people, but at the cost of the fat person’s life.

The question — and, thus, the answer — are the same: five people are worth more than one person, all else being equal (and despite the weird contrivances to make this situation seem vaguely plausible, we assume all else is equal). But this one made me recoil and struggle with my own understanding of the problem: imagining pushing someone over the tracks to save five lives makes me viscerally uncomfortable.

This brewed at the back of my mind for some time: the well-understood belief that killing the one to save the five is the correct course of action, alongside the deeply held feeling that it was wrong. Feeling so strongly repulsed by an action you thoroughly believe is morally correct is an uncomfortable thing, and so I tried to understand the disconnect here: surely there is something I am missing (I notice I am confused).

I had a few ideas about this — perhaps the net decrease in happiness caused by the pushing outweighs the net increase of +4 lives, perhaps I am using as a crutch some pre-cached idea that pushing people off of bridges is never the right answer, etc — but they all felt somewhat hollow.

Recently I’ve come to what I think is a more insightful explanation for the discomfort. I think that, as a matter of human nature, a bug in our programming (be it social or neural; irrelevant here), humans categorize “do something” and “do nothing” separately, which is completely factually incorrect.

The idea of “no action” as being a thing a person can take is actually incoherent. You are at all times doing something; what is meant by “do nothing” has to be in reference to a particular situation. I can choose to do nothing about a scenario (not pushing a person off a bridge) but in that case I am merely doing something else (standing around feeling unhappy) instead.

Inaction towards a particular scenario is not a different category from action. It is merely a human perception of inertia, or of some “default.” If I am in the “fat person” trolley scenario, I have two choices: push a person off a bridge, or stand idly by. These choices have to be considered as fully equal in terms of agency. And it is only by incorrectly considering one choice as “nothing” and the other choice as “intervening,” or similar, that I can even start to absolve myself of the moral guilt of the murder of four people.

 

When choosing your actions, do not forget that inaction is a choice on the exact same level as any other choice. When you start to treat inaction as a separate category, you wind up in scenarios that lead to such famous quotes as “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” and “then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew.”

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