Would You Pull the Lever?: The Trolley Problem

Author: Vedika Vaghmare

From: Chicago, Illinois, USA

Photo by Sophie Dale from Pexels

Introduction


We ought to hear the famous trolley dilemma, a thought provoking experiment relating to ethics, at least one time or another in our lives. The scenario was made by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and goes something like this:


A trolley is moving towards five people who have been tied to the rails. You are next to a lever that can divert the trolley to a side track and save them from being killed. However, there is also another person lying on that side track.


Would you pull the lever and sacrifice the single person in order to save the five lives? Or would you take no action and allow the trolley to kill the five original individuals?


This dilemma has puzzled many brilliant minds who have all tried to determine which choice is morally correct. Many have also created variations of the problem which have brought other factors to consider into the discussion.


Things to consider:


Joshua Greene, a psychology professor at Harvard University, found that the choices a person makes correlate with the activation of different regions of the brain. For example, those who make moral-personal decisions, which are quick and unconscious, would engage the part of the brain that controls emotions. On the other hand, those who make moral-impersonal decisions, which are more deliberate and calculated, trigger the part of the brain that regulates reasoning. This study has helped bring to light different aspects such as a person’s genetics, level of stress, emotional state, and more that might affect what choice a person makes in the trolley problem.


A lot of people who say they would pull the lever might not do so in reality. About 90% of survey participants have responded that they would pull the lever. However, there is a possibility of them freezing up or even running away. Many could end up believing that it is not their responsibility and take no action. There is a lot of pressure with the option of either pulling or not pulling the lever and it is not as easy as we’d think. Michael Stevens, most commonly known as famous Youtuber Vsauce, has conducted this study in real life and surprisingly, many subjects did not pull the lever. Watch the full video here to see the study!


Imagine having a type of relationship with the people tied to the tracks. How would these set of circumstances affect your decision making? If they were your family? Friends? Less people have reported in surveys that they would switch the lever if it was someone personal to them. What would you do?


Conclusion:


The trolley problem asks us to sort ourselves into two different groups: those who would pull the lever, and those who would leave it as is. Some people may have no answer because they honestly do not know what they’d do. Others may present a separate solution such as making an attempt to save the people on the tracks. Maybe, free the one person first and then pull the lever so no one gets hurt. Overall this experiment makes us think a lot, from what a morally correct choice would be, to the personal relationships a person could have with the people on the track. Don’t let it hurt your brain too much.

 

Author: Vedika Vaghmare

Vedika is a Junior in high school who is interested in science and math. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and spending time with her family!

 

Sources:

  1. Cloud, John. “Would You Kill One Person to Save Five? New Research on a Classic Debate.” Time, Time, 5 Dec. 2011, healthland.time.com/2011/12/05/would-you-kill-one-person-to-save-five-new-research-on-a-classic-debate/.

  2. Greene, Joshua D., et al. “An FMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 14 Sept. 2001, science.sciencemag.org/content/293/5537/2105/tab-figures-data.

  3. Stevens, Michael. “The Greater Good- Mind Field S2 (Ep 1)” Youtube, uploaded by Vsauce, 6 December. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sl5KJ69qiA.

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