Trolley problem. You know the thought experiment. The train is out of control, barreling down the track. There’s a fork in the track with a lever that switches tracks. If you do nothing, the train stays on track 1 it will kill 4 people who are trapped on the track. If you pull the lever and switch tracks it will kill one person. What do you choose? You must make a choice. Either choice is bad. You have 2 choices. Do nothing and 4 people will certainly die as a direct result of your inaction. Do something and 1 person will die as a direct result of your action. What do you do?

You could choose to ignore the problem and walk away, letting things play out as they would with no interference. You could try to figure out WHO the people are to help make the decision easier. Are the people on track 1 evil or bad people? Is the person on track 2 evil or bad? You could try to yell at them to move but they can’t hear you over the sound of the train. You could try to race to their location and remove them from the tracks but they’re trapped and there’s not enough time.

You must act NOW. You could try to stop the train or disable it, or sabotage the track to derail the train before it gets to any people and save all the people, but you have no way of effectively doing that in time. There are only 2 choices. Do nothing or pull the lever. So, what do you do? Clearly most people would pull the lever and make the train switch tracks away from the 4 people trapped on the track to the track with only one person.

They’re both difficult decisions, but one choice offers a solution that seems less bad and harms fewer people. Most people would say that they’d choose to pull the lever. In its simplest form the thought experiment is a math problem. In its most complex form it’s a moral dilemma with no “good” choice, but one choice is clearly a better choice which does less harm. Doing less harm is better than doing more harm, right? Yes. In this circumstance the better, more moral decision is clearly to pull the lever which causes less harm.

Well, let’s make this trolley problem even more difficult.

Let’s say you’re trapped in a nuclear control room with two large buttons on opposite sides of the room. Next to each button is the label ABORT LAUNCH. Either button will cancel the launch of one nuclear launch. One nuke targets a small city with 10 million people and the other launches multiple nuclear weapons targeting multiple countries with a combined population of more than 1 billion people. You cannot physically reach both buttons in time by running between them to hit both buttons as they are too far apart and on opposite sides of the room. You have 3 seconds to choose which button you press. Which one do you press? Do you choose to do nothing?

It’s a mind bending moral dilemma similar to the trolley problem but with much greater consequences. If you do nothing, everyone in both areas will die. If you choose to cancel the launch targeting the larger population, 10 million people will still die, but you will save over 1 billion lives. So what do you choose?

Again, this is an unwinnable scenario as both choices have terrible consequences. But one choice is less bad than the other.

Almost no one would choose to abort the launch targeting the smaller city. Some people would certainly choose the lesser of the two evils by aborting the launch targeting the larger population. And some would freeze into inaction and do nothing, thereby allowing everyone to die.

Even admitting what you would do is painful to think about. Almost no one in their right mind would ever want to be placed into this situation where they would be forced to make a decision about who lives and who dies. It’s a terrible predicament.

So, what would you do? Do you pull the lever and push the button that harms fewer people? Or do you ignore the problem and do nothing?


Image source: Trolley Problem