• Let me preface this by saying I was initially going to create a simple poll that people could vote on ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but TWS kept throwing an error notification whenever I tried ❌ so now you get the wordy version (of the question, and your answers) ✅

    The "Tram Case" (Phillipa Foot, 1967)

    The "Trolley Problem" (Judith Jarvis Thompson, 1976)

    The "Conundrum of the deadly choo-choo thingy" (Me, 2022)

    A runaway train with broken breaks is about to speed over 5 railway workers directly in it's path.

    They are currently located inside a tunnel, so by the time they become aware of the light and sounds of the oncoming train once it enters that narrow corridor (finally overwhelming the sounds of their drills and jackhammers and other construction equipment which drowned out all surrounding noise like the bellows of the train while it was still outside that tunnel or your warning cries to them while they still can) it will be too late. There is no other direction available for them to escape from it's path, and there is no room to evade their inevitable demise.

    At this point, they are "simply" going to die (if you want to be technical, this could be classified "at best" as an automotive accident or "at worst" as a case of vehicular manslaughter).

    Now, there is a lever within your reach which -- when voluntarily pulled by you -- switches the tracks that speeding train will use. However, the other parallel path it will divert to also leads to the invariable death of a someone else.

    Perhaps they are a civilian who somehow got stuck on the tracks when trying to cross over to the side of the train station. Or maybe it's a small child or an elderly person who fell onto the tracks and are now too injured or weak, unable to climb out of the way -- indeed, they may be too dizzy and dazed to even realize the immediate and impending danger of the situation they are in. Et cetera, you get the idea, for one reason or another, their fates are effectively out of their hands and this scenario get's boiled down to a terrible "lesser of two evils" either-or binary ultimatum.

    The key thing to note here is that the introduction of the lever radically changes a few things. People are no longer "simply" going to die as an unfortunate consequence of an accident you had no control over. Rather, by becoming aware of your power to affect this situation and the lives that are at stake, you now have to choose between killing or murdering a person, or letting die 5 other people. Either way that this plays out -- even if you "don't choose" or "don't do" anything -- the moral dimensions have fundamentally changed since the outcome of this ethical quandary is directly impacted by in/decision and in/action.

    Now... what would you do?

    Also, since this isn't a simple poll anymore, feel free to explain your thought process (in as many or as few words as you like)

    • Are you deciding based on some sort of "moral mathematics" of how many lives are at stake?
      • What code-of-conduct are you referring to when you conduct this calculus of what is the most correct number to choose from?
        • Holy scriptures?
        • Man-made law?
        • Something else?
    • Or is your criteria not based on their well-being at all?
      • but rather on
        • how "morally unpalatable"
        • or "psychologically horrified"
        • or even "legally culpable"
      • you will be should you become involved in any way by actively participating in the outcome?

    Various variations (and their impact on the reasoning behind your choice)

    • What if those weren't railway workers
      • who, presumably, were aware of the inherent dangers of their profession
        • and/or possibly even recieved hazard pay
      • but were actually innocents placed there
        • by some morally reprehensible villain?
      • Would you be more inclined to pull the lever and kill the kid on the other track now?
        • If so, why?
    • What if the individual on the other track isn't an elderly civilian at all,
      • but a criminal wanted by the law for the worst of crimes.
      • Maybe even as heinous as Hitler himself!
        • You know what? Let's go ahead and make it Hitler on that other set of train tracks.
      • Now... would you feel compelled to act? i.e. to condemn a not-so-innocent man to his death by your own hand + save the lives of 5 others right away, likely countless other potential holocaust victims in the future?
        • If so, why did you change your mind and decide that NOW is the right time to make the call and murder someone?

    Details behind the dilemma (feel free to skip this part and answer if you'd like)

    Philosophically speaking, the way in which way you answer essentially reflects whether

    • you are a consequentialist who subscribes to utilitarianism,
    • vs if you prefer deontological ethics.

    Speaking in less abstract terms, the manner in which you answer reflects where your ethical sensibilities lie:

    • whether you value the well being of others over anything else and try to remain cold, calculating and objective in your actions (or omission to act) while doing so despite how many complications and variables are introduced to the scenario
    • vs a sortof rules-based ethic which is borne out of a sense of moral obligation or duty (whether from an internal source such as your gut / your conscience / your daemon vs an external source such as cultural values or religious law)

    Putting it in the broadest possible terms, deontology is patient-centered, whereas utilitarianism is society-centered.

    While there admittedly can be some overlap between these two systems of how we make value-judgements, there are far more contradictions than similarities since they take diametrically-opposing approaches to the problem of moral decision-making.

    For example, under the deontological ethic, "the ends can never justify the means" - doing what is right, because it is right, is right.

    Meanwhile, since utilitarian ethics are more oriented around consequence-driven decision making, "the ends could very well justify the means"

    • So what if a baby died on those train tracks to save those other people?
      • It is unfortunate, but certainly not as tragic as 5 people dying in it's stead.
    • Should a surgeon butcher this perfectly healthy patient to harvest their organs and transplant it to these 5 other people?
      • Well, the last time I checked 5 is still greater than 1 so, sure - it is a morally virtuous choice to kill that patient since it maximizes utility in the lives of all those other potential organ recipients.
      • But then what of the hippocratic oath that the doctor took to do no harm? Someone else with a deontological sense of morality might vehemently object at this point and say that it is the doctor's duty to uphold that oath s/he swore never to break. So what if those 5 patients die without the transplant? You can't kill someone else to keep them alive, because... you just don't do that. Screw your calculator says, it's too high a cost because "do no harm" and "thou shalt not kill" and so on!

    So... are you a "cold but caring" consequentialist who kills in the name of utility to save more lives than would be lost because the ends justify the means?

    Or a deontological duty-bound rule-follower who would lets those 5 people die on the tracks / on the operating tables because "murder is just plain wrong" and you are not gonna act in contradiction to that almost legally binding obligation, feeling good to yourself about not breaking your strict moral code ...while several others suffer in the background?

    Decisions, decisions...


  • Here's a quick YouTube video summarizing my otherwise nonsensically incoherent and overly verbose meandering rambles 😅

    Also, here's a link to the essay written by J.J. Thomson in case you're interested in reading through the original source material that popularized this problem and spawned all the variations of it that you've probably familiar with (I know I heard a ton of different versions of it when I was growing up)

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