The Simpsons, Family Guy, and The Trolley Problem

Tomkow explains the famous “Trolley Problem” using the aid of characters from The Simpsons and Family Guy:

A runaway trolley is coming down the track. It is headed towards five people who cannot get out of its way. A Passerby realizes that he can save the five by throwing a switch and diverting the trolley down a siding, but he also realizes that if he does so, the trolley will kill a Lone Man standing on the siding.

Should you divert the trolley? Lots of folks say, “Yes!” Whether or not they are right is an interesting problem but it is not what philosophers call “The Trolley Problem“. That problem involves a different case:

A runaway trolley is coming down the track. It is headed towards five people who cannot get out of its way. A passerby realizes that if he pushes a nearby fat man onto the tracks his bulk will stop the trolley before it hits the five, though the fat man himself will be killed.

Most people, including those who think it is okay to turn in TROLLEY, think that it is not okay to push the FAT MAN. “The Trolley Problem” is how to reconcile these two answers. In both cases it seems you can do something that will save five people but only by killing one. How can anyone think it okay to turn in TROLLEY but wrong to push the FAT MAN? What difference is there between the two stories that can possibly make a moral difference?

While I disagree with Tomkow’s eventual reasoning on the issue, the rest of his post is recommended reading for providing several more fun and pedagogically terrific cartoon images, for referencing other important voices on the topic, and for introducing a range of interesting related thought experiments which he thinks help us solve the main one.

And while you are still here, how would you solve the trolley problem? Do you think there is a moral difference between switching the trolley tracks and pushing the fat man? Why or why not? What is the moral thing to do in each case and why?

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.