Question: Trolley Problem
Answer: Gavin Paul ’15
Can taking a life ever be morally permissible? I would argue that it is not only permissible, but even necessary if that one life can save five other equally valuable lives.
I think the clearest way to come to a conclusion about how to handle the runaway trolley is to reduce the problem to a simple math equation. Assuming that all things are equal and there are no outstanding outliers, which I will describe later, then the lives of the five workers clearly possess more value than the life of the lone worker. Reducing such an important matter to a mathematic equation seems cruel and heartless, but it is the simplest way to look at a very complex issue. The family of the lone worker will never comprehend why their loved one’s life was less valuable than the others, but sacrifices have to be made in dire circumstances.
It should be stressed that in this mathematical problem it is not a matter of social standing or importance that determines who lives; rather, it is a matter of value to the community.
There are certain exceptions that are not raised by the question about the workers, but the questions apply to the overarching question of if it is ever acceptable to knowingly sacrifice one life for the lives of others. I would argue that the exceptions come when the one life holds more value for the community than the lives of the five.
Let us change the scenario a little bit to examine this point more closely. Change the five workers to five repeat felons who have managed to kill their guards and escape into the subway system. While that is very unlikely, this hypothetical situation would certainly change the dynamic of the equation. Should the five felons be saved at the expense of the one subway worker? If we stick to the theme of simplifying difficult scenarios by using an equation that places more importance on value to the community over everything else, then I would argue that the switch should not be flipped as the runaway trolley bears down the five felons. I think it is clear that the lone worker is more valuable to the community than the five felons; therefore, the person controlling the switch has a moral obligation to the community to let the five felons perish.
Let’s once again modify the scenario. Now the lone worker is a felon, and the five workers remain five innocent workers who do not deserve to die. It seems like the most value lies with the workers, but the felon has five children hostages being held in a secret location that only he knows. If the felon dies, so do the children. This complicates the equation because I think that the children deserve to be given more value than they deserve at the time of the hypothetical situation. Children are not immediately more valuable than the five workers, because they do not do anything to help the community. They are taken care of for 18 years and then allowed to be adults; however, I believe that they have unknown potential to bring value to the community. One child could be a brilliant violinist. Another child could end up being a doctor. Two others could end up being railroad workers while the last one could be a murderer. It is impossible to guess how a child will end up, so their lives must be protected because of the possible value they could bring to the community. The value could be infinite. Then again, all five could possibly end up being valueless to the community, but the possible positives are worth saving the felon. Assuming the person unlucky enough to be in control of the switch knows all the information, then he must choose to let the five workers die and the one felon live. This decision would be extremely difficult, but it must be made for the good of the community. The five children could potentially bring more value to the community than the unfortunate workers. The person in charge of the switch must give the authorities the chance to get the location of the children from the felon. While the felon is less valuable than the workers, he is in control of lives that might be more valuable than the workers.
The last scenario I will examine would be if it is a leader of some sorts stuck on the track by himself while there is a runaway train car headed for the five workers. This is possibly the messiest scenario. If the lone person is a very successful military leader who is in control of countless lives, then he might have more value to the community than the five workers. If he is irreplaceable and extremely valuable to some war effort, then the five workers might not be as valuable. If the leader is a regular politician simply trying to be seen slumming it around the subway, then his replacement can be easily reelected and the five workers might have more value to the community. I think this final situation is the most difficult to parse out, because it would change immensely depending on the type of leader.
If the switch is removed from the equation and one must physically push someone into harm’s way in order to save the workers, then I would argue that the same rules of value apply. It would certainly be much harder on the person doing the pushing, but they should rest assured that they are doing what is best for the community.