The Trolley Problem Problem

The Trolley Problem Problem November 8, 2017

Since today I will be talking about the ethics of driverless cars, I of course was struck by these words in an article about the famous trolley problem:

In real life, very few people face trolley problems, unless their job is literally to program collision avoidance algorithms for driverless cars.

In (presumably deliberate) contrast to the paralyzing ambiguity at the heart of the trolley problem, the article’s title is not in the slightest bit ambiguous as to what the authors think: “The Trolley Problem Will Tell You Nothing Useful about Morality.” Its authors, Brianna Rennix and Nathan Robinson, argue that, in fact, the unreal and convoluted situations we explore in this philosophical thought experiment merely serve to justify inaction in the real life situations in which there is a clearly better and worse option. Here is how it starts:

You are on an asteroid careening through the cosmos. Aboard the asteroid with you are nine hundred highly-skilled physicians, who have been working on developing a revolutionary medication that will cure every disease in the known universe. The asteroid’s current trajectory is taking it straight toward the Planet of Orphans, where all intergalactic civilizations have dumped their unwanted offspring, of which there are now 100 trillion, all living, breathing, and mewling. If you detonate the asteroid, all of the doctors will die, along with the hope for curing every disease in the universe. If you do not detonate the asteroid, the doctors will have time to develop the cure and send it hurtling toward the Healing Planet before you crash into and destroy the Planet of Orphans. Thus you face the crucial question: how useful is this hypothetical for illuminating moral truths?

Click through to see where they go from there.

I shared some trolley problem memes last year, and of those, this seems the most relevant to the article:

Philosopher's job trolley problem

But there are others more directly related to my talk, such as this one that specifically engages with Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics:

asimov trolley problem

But the one most relevant to the issue of driverless cars is this one that was shared by Caleb Watney on Twitter:

Real Driverless Car Trolley Problem

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • John MacDonald

    The possibility for a cure for every disease seems to trump the collateral damage of one planet (even one characterized as one of “orphans,” clearly trying to elicit an irrational emotional response in favor of detonating the asteroid). On the other hand, I don’t know if I accept one of the premises of the conundrum. Presumably, before the scientists got on the asteroid, their medical advances (or preliminary research) would have been published in peer reviewed academic journals, so surely other scientists not on the asteroid could have picked up where they left off and finished the research. Who knows, maybe the medical breakthroughs have already happened back on “Healing Planet,”, so there is no need for the asteroid scientists to send their cure at all?

    • John MacDonald

      One possible counter-analogy to my line of argumentation here is that the same logic could be used, for instance, by Nazi Doctors to justify “experimenting” on prisoners. This certainly is possible, but I think a more on-point analogy is the idea that sometimes we “need” to experiment on animals for the greater cause of human health, well being, and even existence. And if, at the end of the day, there are paradoxes that point toward moral relativism, where our moral compasses are ultimately determined by our values, culture, prejudices, genetics, etc, then so be it. There was a time in Rome where it used to be entertaining sport to feed the Christians to the lions, and times in ancient Greeks where “War Rape” was considered an acceptable spoil of war. Some cultures in our past have been cannibalistic. These three cultures were “different,” from ours, but on what ground (other than a holier than thou attitude/outlook) can we claim we are “better” than them? Are liberals better than conservatives, or is liberalism and conservatism simply different worldviews? In any case, I certainly do not agree with the authors of the article James linked to that “apparent ethical paradoxes” like the Trolley dilemma aren’t useful for testing our ethical reasoning abilities/ethical systems. Ethical paradoxes are prime examples of situations where we can and should defend our ethical worldviews and ready our examples/analogies and prepare for battle!

      • Chuck Johnson

        These three cultures were “different,” from ours, but on what ground
        (other than a holier than thou attitude/outlook) can we claim we are
        “better” than them?-John

        The best standard that I know of to judge morality is survival and evolution.
        Those ideas and actions which best promote survival of life on Earth (especially human life) along with the evolution of life, are the best moral choices.

        • John MacDonald

          Moral judgments are “referral judgments,” meaning the are made by referencing subjective or objective criteria. So, for instance, analogously, an elementary school teacher making the judgment that a child has achieved a grade level ‘B’ on his/her creative writing project is done by analyzing the child’s work and assessing it according to such criteria as:

          Ideas—the main message
          Organization—the internal structure of the piece
          Voice—the personal tone and flavor of the author’s message
          Word Choice—the vocabulary a writer chooses to convey meaning
          Sentence Fluency—the rhythm and flow of the language
          Conventions—the mechanical correctness
          Presentation—how the writing actually looks on the page

          Similarly, an Ultimate Fighting Championship judge evaluates who won the fight (if there was no knock out or submission) by assessing the fighter’s performance according to such criteria as Octagon Control, Aggressiveness, Striking, and Grappling.

          It is popular right now to ignore the problematic nature of moral judgments and simply assert as “self-evident” that “Of Course There Is Objective Morality,” but to such individuals I would ask them to provide what objective moral criteria are they using to evaluate whether a particular action is immoral. Producing and explaining the criteria is not as easy as one might think! “Self-evident” is another way of saying a proposition is being presented without foundation/argument.

          • Chuck Johnson

            “self-evident” that “Of Course There Is Objective Morality,” -John

            “Self-evident” and “objective morality” would be ideas commonly present in societies with wide common agreement as to what is good morality, and little dissent.

            In such homogeneous societies, most people would be startled, confused, angry or contemptuous if alternative moral views would be presented.

            So objective morality really is widely agreed-upon morality.
            Then, when times change and new moral ideas are introduced, the moral debates begin and the old objective morality is not so objective anymore.

          • arcseconds

            How do you square this moral relativism with your earlier statement that trolley-car type cases debase morality?

            If everyone came to agree that this was the way to do morality, presumably it would then be seen as an advance, not a debasement, just like e.g. equal rights for women is seen today (even though at the time many thought it was a terrible idea).

          • Chuck Johnson

            My opinions about morality are my opinions and they are subject to change.

            The opinions (averaged together) of any group of people is just that averaged-together opinion. – – – It is subject to change.

            The real-and-true objective morality which humans must obey forever because it is perfect is a morality which does not exist.
            This is just ideas created by humans.

            I see that “objective morality” always turns out to be subjective morality when it is examined closely. This is because moral ideas are always created by subjects (humans).

            I am an atheist, and I believe that God is merely an idea created by humans. The various versions of God which we can examine reveals various moral ideas, some better and some worse.

            But all moral ideas, in the end, are subjective ideas and they they are subject to change over time. The human race is constantly learning new things.

          • On the contrary, rape, molestation, slaughter, racism are ALWAYS wrong. There’s nothing “subjective” about raping a child, slaughtering many innocent people at a Las Vegas music festival, priests molesting children in Boston, little girls mutilated in Egypt, etc.

          • Chuck Johnson

            On the contrary, rape, molestation, slaughter, racism are ALWAYS wrong.-Daniel

            If these actions are ALWAYS wrong, and we need Daniel Wilcox to be the person who stands in judgement of exactly what actions constitute rape, molestation, slaughter and racism, then we have bowed down to Daniel as our God.

            Not me.

            Like many religionists, you have created a personal God for yourself to congratulate yourself for having ideas and opinions which are perfect, indisputable and eternal. That was one of the reasons that gods were invented. – – – Self-aggrandizement.

            Another reason was intellectual laziness.

          • Try telling that to the young people who have been abused, to the millions who are treated unfairly, to the girls who we’re mutilated, raped, etc.

          • Chuck Johnson

            And Daniel is the one who passes all judgements.
            Rape, molestation, slaughter and racism are to be defined by Daniel.
            You seem to worship yourself.

          • Wrong! Read Enlightenment leaders, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, millions of secular thinkers and scientists, Amnesty International, the Human Manifesto III, etc.

            They ALL argue for the view that “rape, molestation, slaughter, and racism are ALWAYS wrong.”


            Only a minority of conservative Christians, Muslims, Hindus, some secularists claim that such unethical actions aren’t always wrong.

          • Chuck Johnson

            Yes, Daniel we have all seen that you are blindly obedient to the authority of your Great Leaders.

            That’s not the question here.
            The problem is that we have to go on Daniel’s personnel judgement of when rape, etc. happens.

            You are not smart enough to make those judgements.
            No one person is smart enough for that.

          • Jerry Hollingsworth

            Except for the victim…

          • Chuck Johnson

            The victim of rape?
            The victim of being accused of rape?
            The victim of fraudulent rape?
            The victim of consensual sex after consuming alcohol?
            An endless list of accusations could be made.

          • Jerry Hollingsworth

            My point sir.

          • Chuck Johnson

            Daniel, you keep on showing us that the reason that you studied semantics was the desire to skillfully deceive yourself and to deceive others.

          • arcseconds

            OK, so when you say that trolley examples debase morality, what this means is that you don’t happen to like what you imagine will happen if people read trolley examples?

            Because there’s no such thing as moral debasement beyond your feelings about it.

          • Chuck Johnson

            Because there’s no such thing as moral debasement beyond your feelings about it.-arcseconds

            No, your feelings and the feelings of many other people provide information as to what moral debasement might be.
            That includes people of the past, present and future.

            You should beware of the danger of a single story.


          • arcseconds

            You can have as many stories you like, but if you expect us to agree with you, you at least have to explain them to us.

            What I’ve got so far, is that ‘rape is wrong’ is not a fact but just a subjective opinion, as there is no such thing as objective morality.

            But moral debasement is an objective fact, and it is somehow determined on the basis of people’s feelings.

            Is this a fair description of your view, and if so, could you explain how moral debasement can be objective, but ‘rape is wrong’ can’t be, and how moral debasement arises out of people’s feelings?

          • Chuck Johnson

            But moral debasement is an objective fact, and it is somehow determined on the basis of people’s feelings.-arcseconds

            Moral debasement is an opinion, a subjective assertion.
            Both feelings and facts go into arriving at such an opinion.

          • Chuck Johnson

            Is this a fair description of your view, and if so, could you explain how moral debasement can be objective, but ‘rape is wrong’ can’t be, and how moral debasement arises out of people’s feelings?-arcseconds

            Both moral debasement and the perception of what might constitute or not constitute rape are subjective perceptions.

            Where does objective knowledge come from ?
            Objective knowledge tends to be popular opinion.
            The more popular the opinion becomes, the more objective that opinion is perceived to be.

            But of course, even very popular opinions are somewhat subjective because those opinions are formulated by subjects (people) and not by gods.

          • arcseconds

            So, it appears that your answer to my question as to whether your statements about moral debasement are also subjective is actually “yes”, and not “no”, which is what you actually answered.

            So I wonder why you answered “yes” to start with. Have you changed your mind?

            Also, if you are just reporting on your subjective feeling, then wouldn’t it be clearer for you to say something to indicate this? Like “I think considering trolley type problems will lead to a society that will personally repulse me” rather than “considering trolley type problems are likely to lead to moral debasement”.

            The later statement suggests that there is such a thing as moral debasement independent of your feelings about it, and if it’s just a way of reporting on your feelings, it would be clearer to use language which expresses exactly that.

          • Chuck Johnson

            Then try:
            “considering that trolley-type problems are exercises to learn good morality is likely to lead to moral debasement”.

            Because I consider simpleminded morality to be bad or debased morality.

          • arcseconds

            Right, but according to you this doesn’t mean anything beyond your own subjective reaction —those who like trolley problems think of them as sophisticated and correct morality, you think of them as bad and debased, and this has no further implications than Daniel not liking rape, or me not liking bean salad.

            And who cares about your opinion? Or are you setting yourself up as a god?

          • Chuck Johnson

            And who cares about your opinion? Or are you setting yourself up as a god?-Arcseconds

            You do, for one.
            You show it in every time that you reply to me.

            Pretending “Who cares” ? Is a symptom of a compartmentalized mind.
            You are confused.

          • arcseconds

            You don’t personally like trolley problems and the morality you imagine they inculcate, yet you insist on describing this as though it was an objective fact. Even when asked whether this is subjective, you say “no”, but when pressed, you say “yes”.

            I wonder why it’s so difficult for you to be honest about this? I mean, why didn’t you just say “I personally find trolley problems distasteful”, which would make it obvious what the status of your claim was, instead of carrying out the pretense you were making an objective claim?

            de gustibus non disputandum est, so there’s no point in discussing your claim any further now it’s clear you regard this as just a matter of taste, and wasn’t much point to begin with, had you not insisted on dressing it up as something it wasn’t.

          • Chuck Johnson

            Even when asked whether this is subjective, you say “no”, but when pressed, you say “yes”.-arcseconds

            Any time that I have been asked, I have said “subjective”.
            I wonder why it is so difficult for you to be honest about this ?

          • arcseconds

            I am being honest, and the truth is you did not say this every time you were asked.

            I first asked you here, and your reply does nothing to answer my question. You do not clarify what the status of your debasement claims are, or even mention debasement, and it could have just as well served as a reply to any of Daniel’s comments. I wasn’t sure you even understood my question – it just seemed like your knee-jerk reaction to someone mentioning objective and ethics.

            I then asked again putting it to you that it was just about your feelings, and your reply was again very unclear, but it started off with “no”, so I took this to be disagreement.

            Disagreeing that it is just about your feelings rather strongly suggests that there’s more to it than just your feelings, and you then went on about feelings of many people, and something about a simple story, along with a long youtube clip which seems completely irrelevant.

            The relevance of this wasn’t clear to me, but given that you disagreed, I thought you were suggesting that the feelings of everyone concerned somehow added up into something objective.

            (and actually the relevance is still far from clear. A clear statement of your position here would be “yes, I am just reporting on my feelings”, but that’s not what I got. How is an african woman concerned about books only having stories about white people relevant at all to this discussion?)

            It was only the third time I asked this question you actually agreed it was subjective.

            I’m not sure why you’re so confused about this, especially given the discussion is there for everyone to see, but nevertheless that’s what we’re faced with.

  • Mark

    The trolley is a minor sub-example in Philippa Foot 1968, ‘Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect’ as a special case. Its interest was that the agent (she presupposes a driver responsible for the car) will truly be said to ‘kill’ whatever he does. (Such cases are inevitably somewhat artificial) The main topic of the paper was the merits of consequentialism — and the unstated background question was the morality of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. This consequentialism would favor (on typical historical premises) but she wants to oppose. The paper is very great and it has spawned a large learned literature frequently of considerable profundity (see for example the strange but powerful Taurek 1977 ).

    You are I think very much acting the part of the creation scientist and Jesus mythicist in finding anything in the very standard ignorant philistinism of Rennix and Robinson. I might add that there is a /very/ strong misogynist element in the written critiques of this literature that are abroad, but it would take considerable space to prove this.

    • As I said in my talk today, I think that the switch to driverless cars is very much like the trolley problem, in which we might well be inclined to do nothing and leave the status quo as it is, pretending that, in so doing, we are not allowing people to die in car accidents that would be very much less likely in a world of automated vehicles.

      What I appreciated about the article by Rennix and Robinson is the critique of the misuse of this problem, which reminds me very much of the misuse or misappropriation of skepticism or of postmodernism, in which lazy students treat these approaches to inquiry merely as justifications to say that all viewpoints are equal, or as a weapon to be used against other viewpoints. In the same way, many illustrations of the complexity and challenging character of ethical reasoning are prone to be used to justify simply foregoing the responsibility to engage in the hard work of ethical reasoning. Have you not encountered this same phenomenon?

      • Mark

        I don’t believe there is any ‘misuse of this problem’, unless it is by failing to consider it alongside the array of other 1 vs 5 cases that gave it a point. It only became widely known quite recently with – whereupon psychologists with millions in federal funding but I guess no actual problems of their own started retracing the existing post-Foot literature with fMRI machines and whatever other methods crossed their minds. The illiteracy of Rennix and Robinson is shown in the fact that they put the philosophers alongside the psychologists as a single class of decadents who have allegedly been discussing this forever.

        In fact Foot 1968 is a very good work to begin with because the carefully chosen succession of examples immediately convinces the student that there are definite facts in this domain – as well as hard problems and indeterminate cases – and that it is impossible to evade the search for the understanding that will account for them. The whole purpose of the enquiry is the rejection of consequentialism (which says ‘save the 5’ indifferently in all cases). It is the lazy position akin to half baked skepticism and postmodernism, and the paper is generally successful in getting the student to see through it.

        • John MacDonald

          Hey Mark! Interesting thoughts.
          Who would you say was right, those mourning 9/11 as a terrible tragedy, or those celebrating 9/11 as a tremendous blessing and victory (see the brief video below)? Or was that just like the abortion debate that just comes down to bias and personal taste (like whether or not someone likes a particular flavor of ice cream). Or do you feel there is a “correct” side to the abortion debate?:

      • John MacDonald

        I find the “G.A.I.F” acronym mnemonic to be helpful when thinking about the foundation of ethics:

        1.-Golden Rule
        3.-Inner Circle

        1. So, the Golden Rule, which is attested to cross culturally in human history, is one of the principle criteria we should be referring to when trying to build our ethical systems.
        2. Humans are different from animals in that we display a heightened understanding of responsibility for our actions. Our faculty of reason projects a moral responsibility onto all of our actions. So, while it may not serve any purpose to get angry at the dog for biting our leg (since it is just being a dog), we all understand that we are legally and morally responsible for injuring someone (unless the actor is insane). This inherent projection of responsibility by our faculty of reason provides a “theoretical” foundation for ethics.
        3. All humans have an “inner circle” that they behave morally toward. For some this may just be themselves, or just their family, or just their family and friends, etc. The “practical” goal of ethics is to get people to view the whole of humanity as part of their “inner circle.”
        4. In trying to figure out how to apply the golden rule, we find a useful guide in friendship. For instance, we teach children that they are being a better friend when they are sharing, thinking about others before themselves, etc. We should always comport ourselves toward others out of a spirit of friendship and brotherly/sisterly love.

    • arcseconds

      Thanks for this. I did not know that this was the source of the Trolley Problem, despite taking ethics at post-graduate level, and discussing it in class. And several times since then.

      This does make me wonder whether academic philosophy can really be let off the hook here, as it seems to me that it has come loose of its moorings even within that discipline.

      (It is possible that its origin was discussed, but I forgot, but I think this is highly unlikely as I don’t typically forget this sort of thing, at least not completely. In particular its original use to defend a non-consequentialist position when it’s so often used to justify a consequentialist one is the sort of irony that sticks with me.)

      I will plug this gap in my knowledge and read these papers when I get an opportunity.

  • Gary

    Ethics of software (which is just the brains of robotics) is irrelevant. The sensors reliability is the question. Radar, Image recognition, LED detection, are all unreliability when it comes to life and death decisions. AEGIS weapon’s System on ships, which cost $Big Bucks, has an automatic mode, for detection, identification, and destruction of unidentified air targets. Never used. Because no one trusts software and sensors to kill people. A 2ton vehicle is just a weapon of mass destruction. Won’t happen. Man-in-loop is necessary. Not to mention the potential radar, IR cross section, or image recognition of our poor dogs and cats that cross the road.

    • Gary

      BTW, how’s the sensors working in adverse weather conditions? Fog, rain, snow, dust, or when the sun is reflected directly into the sensors aperture? Dogs and cats are dead meat. Heaven help us! Of course, no one is into heaven here, anyway – 🙂

  • Chuck Johnson

    To me, engaging in such hypothetical moral debates is more likely to debase human morality than to enhance it.

    • Mark

      If Truman had thought through the standard array of cases to which Trolley belongs, he wouldn’t have bombed Hiroshima.

      • Chuck Johnson

        Your simpleminded formula for world peace is more likely to debase human morality than to enhance it.

        • John MacDonald

          Wars tend to be wars between inner circles. We view our society as our inner circle, and so justify using any (or many) means necessary for protecting our society from the apparent threat (outer group). In the second world war, this not only included bombing Japan, but also propaganda posters depicting Japanese cartoonishly as demons.

          • Chuck Johnson

            Worldwide travel and worldwide communications are the best remedy for the “cartoonish demons” type of politics. Modern technologies help with this.
            The industrialized countries continue to evolve in the right direction.

            North Korea is a menace due to its enforced isolation.

        • arcseconds

          What do you think Mark’s simpleminded formula for world peace is, exactly?

          • Chuck Johnson

            Morality exercises using hypothetical trolley-car type scenarios.

          • arcseconds

            And you know this how? Mark has never said that he thinks this is a route to world peace.

            I’m not sure at this point whether you actually care about what Mark’s actual opinion is, or you just want to lash out at a straw man.

          • Chuck Johnson

            Don’t give me any straw man arguments.
            Read Mark’s comments.

          • arcseconds

            I have read Mark’s comments and I cannot find the view that you attribute to him there.

  • Craig Pesti-Strobel

    And, of course, there is always the problem of computers and centralized programming illustrated in the movie, I Robot, based, of course, on the Azimovian three laws of Robotics alluded to in your article!

  • Chris Crawford

    The Ted Danson character had a unique take on the Trolley Problem in a recent episode of “The Good Place.” Although he may have misunderstood the question.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I think trolley problems are useful because they helpfully illustrate how useless trolley problems are.
    Our moral instincts, I would say, are based largely on our values (that is what we consider as good, e.g. happiness, life, beauty, the natural world, order, spirituality, whatever) and our experience as to what kind of actions promote or destroys that good. They don’t work in situations that don’t take place in reality.
    Trolley problems are really abstract logic puzzles (of the “there are no tigers in Germany, Munich is in Germany, are there any tigers in Munich?” type) in disguise, only without being told the correct (artificial) premise on which to solve them. In do far as the classic one is a misleading and complicated way of asking whether in general and in the abstract it is better if fewer people die, the answer is “well, of course”; in so far as the problem is purportedly about real a trolley and real people, the correct answer is to change the points while the trolley is half way across and derail it.
    (BTW: The correct answer to the logic problem is “Yes, Munich has tigers”, as Munich has a zoo.)