The Trolley Problem

Ethics in Motion

In the ever-fascinating world of ethical philosophy, the “Trolley Problem” stands out as an engaging and thought-provoking dilemma. British philosopher Philippa Foot first introduced it in 1967 in an attempt to unravel the complex web of human morality.

Picture this: you are standing by a lever that controls the direction of the trolley. On its current path, it threatens to hit and kill five people tied to the tracks. You have the power to divert it onto another track, where only one person is tied. What would you do in this situation?

This problem often splits into two primary perspectives. One approach, utilitarianism, advocates for the choice that serves the greater good. In this case, it means diverting the trolley to the track with one person, thereby saving more lives. The rationale here is straightforward—minimizing the number of casualties maximizes overall happiness or welfare.

On the flip side, deontological ethics argues that the moral value of one’s actions determines right or wrong, irrespective of the consequences. Following this perspective, intervening and pulling the lever to cause someone’s death is morally wrong, even if it saves others. Here, one might choose not to interfere, letting the trolley continue on its original course, preserving the moral purity of non-action.

The Trolley Problem

Solutions to this moral predicament aren’t clear-cut, but discussions surrounding it encourage critical thinking and foster dialogue on the complexities of human ethics. Moreover, this scenario can expand to include more varied and complex situations, adding layers to the ethical deliberations.

Imagine yourself on a bridge overlooking the tracks. There is a large man next to you. If you push him onto the tracks, his weight will stop the trolley, saving the five people tied further down the tracks. However, he will die. Would you push him?

Adding layers of character, imagine an evil villain ties up the five individuals on the main track. But the lone person on the side track is the villain’s accomplice. Does knowing that one person is “bad” affect your choice?

Or what if the lone person on the side track was someone you cherish deeply—a family member or close friend? Would personal ties and emotional connection sway your decision?

Leaving the trolley tracks for a moment, visualize a hospital. You’re a doctor faced with five patients, each desperately needing a different organ transplant. In the waiting room sits a healthy individual. Harvesting this person’s organs could save all five patients. Should you do it?

The Trolley Problem and its myriad variations are more than a simple philosophical puzzle. It’s a mirror reflecting the complexities and intricacies of human morality. While these dilemmas may seem distant or fictional, they spotlight genuine tensions in our daily lives—how often are we faced with choices where the “right” answer isn’t clear?

What the Trolley Problem ultimately teaches us is that ethics is not static. And while there may not always be a definitive answer, the journey—our continuous endeavor to seek understanding and navigate the moral landscape—is what truly matters.


The “Trolley Problem” is a philosophical thought experiment where one must decide whether to pull a lever to divert a runaway trolley onto a track killing one person, thereby saving five on its original path, or do nothing, allowing the trolley to kill the five. It delves into the complexities of moral decision-making, ultimately teaching us that ethics is not static. While this dilemma may seem distant or fictional, it spotlights genuine tensions in our daily lives—how often are we faced with choices where the “right” answer isn’t clear?

Words of wisdom

“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.” ―Isaac Asimov, Foundation

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.” ―Mark Twain

“Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.” ―Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” ―Socrates


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