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?

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.

  • lordshipmayhem

    For me, the issue is this: by pushing Comic Book Guy into the trolley, you are actively murdering him, for he will not be able to escape. By switching the trolley’s tracks, there still exists a possibility that Homer may drop the doughnut, chase after it and get out of the way – saving the five strangers’ lives and not killing Homer.

    • Camels With Hammers

      The way the dilemma is more precisely framed, Homer can’t escape because the walls to either side are too steep.

      To keep from there being other variables which allow a third way out, we must assume the choice is definitely killing one vs. definitely killing five, in both cases.

  • Alex

    I can’t help but think that if Homer’s dumb enough to be out on the tracks, then, quite by definition, he deserves whatever consequences may come his way. E.g. if you’re dumb enough to eat rat poison, I’d say you deserve to get sick and/or die from it. However, there is nothing inherently dangerous about being on a bridge; it’s not ordinary to be pushed off of it, whereas it IS ordinary to die from being on train tracks or from eating poison.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Say, on both tracks all the people there are there because Mr. Burns has tied them to the tracks.

      The heart of the dilemma is five deaths vs. one death and the question of flipping a switch that puts someone in the path of certain death vs. pushing a human being directly with one’s own hands into the path of certain death.

    • Alex

      THAT I get. In that case, I’d agree that there’s no difference.

    • Daniel Schealler

      I’m one of the people that doesn’t give standard answers for this problem.

      The deciding factor as to which set of answers I give comes down to volition.

      Did the Five People choose to be on the tracks without duress? For example, is this just a family that are deciding to run up and down the tracks for shits and giggles? Or is everyone tied up with rope and I’ve been placed in this experiment by a psychopathic ethics researcher that double-majored in supervillainy during their undergraduate coursework?

      Not Under Duress From Supervillain
      Answer #1: Do not pull the lever.

      Reasoning #1:
      For all I know the Lone Man knew there wasn’t supposed to be a train coming, so he thought it was safe to go out on the tracks. But the Five People very probably should have known better. To me the more-likely blamelessness of the Lone Man relative to the less-likely blamelessness of the Five People means that I can’t send the trolley his way.

      Answer #2: Do not push the Fat Man.

      Reasoning #2:
      The Fat Man is even more reliably blameless than the Lone Man was in #1 as he isn’t on any train tracks to begin with. But the Five People are still just as suspect as before.

      Under Duress From Supervillain
      Answer #1: Pull the lever.

      Reasoning #1:
      All seven of us are pretty much fucked now that we’ve fallen into the hands of this maniacal researcher with a train fetish, so I may as well keep the body count down as low as possible. Moral culpability for the Lone Man’s death lies with the supervillain, not with me..

      Answer #2: Push the Fat Man.

      Reasoning #2:
      Exactly as for #1. I see no difference between the two scenarios in a world where all seven of us have been reduced to little more than lab-rats. I’ll keep the body count as low as possible… Moral culpability for the Fat Man’s death lies with the supervillain, not with me..

    • Camels With Hammers

      Or is everyone tied up with rope and I’ve been placed in this experiment by a psychopathic ethics researcher that double-majored in supervillainy during their undergraduate coursework?

      hahahaha I am SO using this in future formulations of moral dilemmas!

  • Peter H

    You don’t have the right to choose where the trolley ends up. If the trolley is heading one way and you only have time to switch it to kill someone else and not to alert them, you are murdering that one person. You are choosing to end that person’s life, and you simply don’t have the right to choose that someone’s life is worth less than anyone else’s.

    Pushing the fat man in front of the trolley becomes an easier decision after looking at this way. Obviously, you wouldn’t, in both cases you’re killing someone. If someone has to die and there’s no way around it, you, plain and simple, can not choose who dies and who doesn’t. By doing nothing, you’re not intentionally killing anyone, you’re not the cause of the family of five’s death. But if you change the track, you will be the cause. 5 lives, 1 life, 100 lives. You should never be the cause nor be the one to intentionally end anyone’s life.

    • nFec

      I think, althought no one would enforce it, that you should morally be made liable of negligence. (Sorry not native language ;)) You could save some people, but out of your own egoism, not wanting to become an actor, the outcome gets worse.
      I do not think that _not_ acting, is any less a moral crime than acting…

    • Peter H

      I do agree, your negligence causing death is just as bad as intentionally causing it. however in this case, whether or not you’re standing there to save the five people, they are going to die. They are not dying because of your negligence, since the trolley will hit them whether or not you are there. If the only other alternative is to choose to kill someone else, then you can’t be the judge on that person dying, even if it is less people.

      The number of lives isn’t the only quantity determining the magnitude of the act. The one guy could have 10 children, widowed, and caring for his elderly parents. In this case you will be ruining the lives of 12+ people instead of five. It’s not your choice to make who dies and who doesn’t. And this is why it’s not out of your negligence that those people are going to die, it is out of their own negligence.

    • barbrykost

      I have to agree with Peter H here. You just don’t have all the facts and it would be wrong to cause someone’s death. This does not mean that one should never make hasty decisions, but surely you need to think more carefully before deliberately killing someone.

  • Jonathan Roberts

    We should do good for goodness sake, but that’s not all that drives our moral thinking. How one thinks they will be percieved affect ones moral reasoning. Sure, it’s the same outcome, but pushing the man is more likely to result in prosecution. We are all like the preacher doesn’t think his child molestation, embezelment, etc. is so bad until he gets caught because he is not imagining how others would percieve him.

    Do the trolley experiment with this variation:
    Group one: You are passing through when you come upon the situation. No one will ever know it was you that pulled the lever or pushed the man: You can’t stay to take credit or blame (You’re catching the adjacent train to rush to do a life saving operation.)

    Group two: You are a prominent member of this community and so is the fat man. There is a crowd of people watching.

  • nFec

    I get, that some people might “prefer” the switch solution over the pushing one, because flipping a switch is less direct, less personal.
    The thing is: If you push s.o. you could always jump yourself, can’t you? Rendering oneself dead, but keeping all others alive. Wouldn’t that be somewhat more moral? Or is this another copout?

    • Camels With Hammers

      Yes, it’s a different scenario if it’s one of sacrificing yourself—but an interesting one worth exploring in its own right. Typically the fat man is used because he’s unusually big enough to stop the trolley where an ordinary person would not be.

      But the question is if YOU should jump if you were the one who could do it—say you were the fat man—and if you would think you were obligated to jump, should the fat man feel obligated? And would it be justified in pushing him since he has an obligation regardless of whether or not he recognizes it?

      Or do none of us have an obligation to supererogatory actions, like sacrificing our own lives for the sake of multiple others?

    • Mike K.

      The dilemma has a fat man for a reason. The point is that throwing yourself in front of the trolley wouldn’t stop it, but the mass of the rotund man would, or at least might.

  • kougaro

    It seems to me that the trolley problem boils down to whether you think it is possible to measure the value of a human life, or not.

    If you don’t, neither choice is preferable over the other,
    and both choice are morally acceptable.
    If you do, then you probably have a way to measure how much a bunch of people is worth, and decide accordingly.

    Now if we consider a real life scenario, this is complicated by a few things :
    - pretty much everyone values some people more than others (i.e, your mother vs. a complete stranger), even if you don’t think you can put a value on human life
    - the outcome of a choice is not always completely deterministic : I’m pretty sure that using the switch will divert the trolley; pushing a fat man in front of it ? not so much…

    From this, my first thought was to calculate the expectation value associated with each outcome, and my second was to use game theory, though I simply do not know enough about it to do that myself.
    I suppose that our brain are doing this kind of cost/benefit analysis whenever we are faced with this kind of problem.

    To conclude, though I may want to think that every life is invaluable, I clearly care much more for the life of some people than others. It seems to me that there isn’t a moral thing to do, and that as such every choice is morally defensible, especially the “choice” to freak out if you are ever really confronted with such a situation…

  • Marnie

    When a trolly is hurtling down the tracks it’s not your problem, it’s not your fault and you are not expected to intervene. It would be a tragedy no matter the outcome and it was caused by something you had no hand in starting. Whether you opt to do nothing or opt to save as many lives as possible, no one has any expectations of you.

    However, when your option is to push an individual on to the tracks with the assumption that doing so will save lives, you become something other than a bystandard. You now play an active role in the outcome. You must approach an individual, potentially look them in the eye, push their body off the bridge and watch them plumet to their death. You have now taken a situation that was not your doing and out of your hands and you have chosen to take an active role in the outcome.

    There is the implication of what that means for the individual who pushes the other individual off the platform. In a risk analysis, presuming you are sure you can push the individual off and sure you will save the 5 people, how sure are you that you will not be arrested for murder, when all is said and done. The truth is that the average person would not be sure of the first two and the last item is quite likely making it a risky assumption with a terrible outcome for at least 2 people and possibly all 7.

    I think it’s an interesting thought study and it tells us a lot about how humans think, but the logic behind it seems pretty solid to me.

  • Tabby Lavalamp

    Can the fact that Stewie is very obviously carrying a ray gun be taken into consideration?

    • Camels With Hammers

      HAHAHAHAHA, you’ve figured out the secret to the riddle, Tabby! ;)

  • Jason d

    Though I would’nt feel good about I would pull the leaver in the first scenario. I would not push the fatman off the bridge though.

    I would pull the leaver for the obvious reason (net 4 lives saved), but I would not push the man even though the same reason for pulling the leaver can be applied.
    I think the difference between directly acting on an object (the leaver) rather than directly acting on the person makes the difference.

    Seems like I’m stating the obvious, but they are the only words that come out.

  • Anthony

    This is the kind of dilemma that would fry the Positronic Matrix of an Asimov-style robot (violation of the First Rule, in both cases.) It would probably fry my brain as well.

    I think that given any of the choices that I’m presented with, I would be “sacrificing” myself in any of those. When my brain is fried (from either allowing 5 people to die by doing nothing, or by actively murdering 1 person to save them) I would cease to be me, and would likely live out the rest of my days in a padded room.

    Given the 2 options for both scenarios, I would go with Option 5. Derail the train. It’s the best chance for everyone (including any passengers on the train) to survive.

  • usagichan

    The responses both here and the typical responses you have mentioned are interesting in that the good/ bad outcome (or is that bad / worse outcome) are almost agreed upon by simple arithmetic – five saved is better than one and the dilema is along the lines of the extent that it is morally acceptable to be active in the scarifice of the one.

    I wonder if the responses would be different if the one were not Homer Simpson, but a heart surgeon who may save dozens of lives, a researcher on the brink of curing cancer or a new Mozart or Michaelangelo, whose work would change the lives of millions, compared to a group of five unemployed drug addicts?

    I have also seen the problem phrased where the one is a newborn baby on the tracks, as opposed to five adults, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) one cute baby trumps five fully grown individuals in the “who to save” lottery.

    If I make an active decision, then I am effectively saying that five lives have more value than one life. I think I would do nothing in any of the cases – whilst this is clearly an active choice in that it is a decision that leads to a certain outcome, I am unwilling to value individuals in purely mathematical terms, and prefer to act as though I had no influence on events (despite the fact in actuality I would have an indfluence on events), rather than make an active decision valuing one set over another based purely on numbers.

  • Tisha Irwin

    I would never sacrifice Homer, let alone Comic Book Guy (I love that guy!) for any of the Family Guy characters.

    That said, I don’t think anyone has the right to demand another person to sacrifice their life in exchange for others. That goes for pulling the lever as well as pushing the fat guy.

    What’s the difference between that and the priest who sacrifices the virgin to appease the gods and save the village from the volcano or whatever?

    If one chooses to sacrifice one’s own life to save others, that’s all well and good. But nobody else has the right, under any circumstances, to make that decision for them.

    • Camels With Hammers

      What’s the difference between that and the priest who sacrifices the virgin to appease the gods and save the village from the volcano or whatever?


    • Tisha Irwin

      Fair enough. Thousands of people die every year waiting for organ transplants. Why shouldn’t we pick people to kill to save all those other people?

    • Camels With Hammers

      Yes, there’s a related great thought experiment that refers to that possibility. The idea goes that there is a genius transplant surgeon who needs five different organs for five patients or they will die, in walks a healthy patient coming in for a check up, who happens to have a rare blood type that can help all five patients. Should the surgeon take the five needed organs from the one person to save the other 5?

      Even I would probably say not on that one, even though I feel like it is illogical.

      But, a softer case for testing intuitions of whether we actually have obligations to sacrifice for each other is—what if giving an organ is not a significant long term health risk to oneself, are you obligated to give it if it’s the only way someone will live? Then I think we do have the moral obligation to do what it takes, including incurring some related sacrifices, in order to do it.

    • Tisha Irwin

      If that’s the case, you must think there are a lot of morally insufficient people around. Most otherwise healthy people would tolerate kidney donation with little long term detriment. But there are still lots of people waiting for kidneys. If all those people fulfilled their moral obligation, there would be a lot less suffering in the world.

    • Camels With Hammers

      If that’s the case, you must think there are a lot of morally insufficient people around. Most otherwise healthy people would tolerate kidney donation with little long term detriment. But there are still lots of people waiting for kidneys. If all those people fulfilled their moral obligation, there would be a lot less suffering in the world.

      We are indeed all morally insufficient, including in this respect, in most cases. We all should regularly donate blood too. There could (and maybe should) be a long checklist of conscientious, proactive things that everyone should do that few presently do. A far better, science-based, happiness-and-flourishing-improving revised take on the book of Leviticus.

      What people normally do is no guide to determining what they ought to do. We all could do much better.

    • Tisha Irwin

      Oh I agree that everyone can do better. I just have a hard time with the idea of compelling someone to do something like that.

  • Lugosi

    First of all, as a fat man myself, I find the second question offensive.
    Beyond that, I would take no action whatsoever. Perhaps it was God himself that put that trolley in motion in the first place, and who am I to question His will?
    Then afterwards I would rummage through the pockets of the victims for money or other valuables. It’s not really stealing if they’re dead.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Yes, I always am a little embarrassed bringing up the fat man in the example in class. I feel like being a fat man myself, takes some of the edge off of it, and, as usual, the heavier kids in the class are completely good sports about it too. The example is not picking on the fat man as some lesser important person on account of his weight, it’s just a device for explaining why he and not someone else would have to be the one to go on the tracks (he’s the only one big enough to absorb the blow)

  • MV

    The problem with the second case is that I don’t accept the premise. I wouldn’t push the person off of the bridge because it wouldn’t work. Or if it would work, why couldn’t the five people working together stop the train safely?

    How much of the difference is really due in part to this reasoning?

    • Camels With Hammers

      Theoretically, it should not factor into the decision, people who are surveyed on this have it made clear to them that in fact this would work.

  • Jason Thibeault

    There’s a “moral dilemma” in the game inFamous for the PS3 that I’m going to spoil heavily. A supervillain kidnaps the protagonist’s girlfriend, and eight doctors. There are two towers near one another at the local hospital. The girlfriend is tied up on one tower, the eight doctors on the other. The supervillain says a bomb will go off and the protagonist only has time to rescue one set of them.

    The moral choice is that if you save the doctors, you’re saving untold numbers of lives. This is the “good” action. The “bad” action is to try to save your girlfriend.

    The supervillain kills the girlfriend in either case — she was actually tied to the tower with the doctors, and instead of a bomb, her restraints are cut and she falls and dies. If you take the evil action and try to save your girlfriend, you’re actually saving some anonymous woman. It was a test to see whether you’re good or evil, and in either case, your girlfriend dies.

    I think the game designers looked at this specific ethical thought experiment when they designed that scenario.

    I’m going to link back here once I’ve ranted about video game morality. I have a post planned… eventually.

  • Mike K.

    Ah, trolley problem. We meet again.

    Apologies if my point has already been made before, I only briefly skimmed the above posts.

    I’m going to be annoying and respond to the dilemma with another dilemma (at first).

    You have 5 patients all in need of transplant organs who are dying. By an astonishing coincidence, there is a man in for a checkup with matching organs of the people who need them. It would be easy enough to take them, killing him, so do you? Even to save 5 lives?

    It’s essentially the same as the trolley problem in terms of maths but there is a big situational difference. Your hand is not forced.

    If you are standing at the lever which will turn the trolley from killing 5 individuals to killing 1 individual, you are responsible for killing the 5 if you take no action. In that sense even no action is an action.
    Pushing the fat man is different, you are not forced into the position of having to make the decision between the fat man and the 5 workers. You are not part of the situation unless you make yourself part, but if you’re at the lever, you are automatically apart of the situation either way.

    • Mike K.

      I wish there were an edit button, I was looking for a particular word in making my response but couldn’t recall it.

      In the second situation, in not acting you are not culpable for the deaths of the 5 individuals on the tracks when you don’t kill the fatman. You are so when you fail to pull the lever.

  • sailor1031

    It entirely depends on who the five are, who the fat man is, who the lone guy is. If family guy is in the group of five I would let Homer live and not divert the the trolley, even though the other four die too. If the lone man is family guy, I would divert the trolley with NO hesitation. If the fat man was my ex-boss – over the railing he goes; no question about it. If I don’t know ANY of them then I may do nothing at all……or I may not. You want consistency? buy peanut butter!