A Thought Experiment Called the Trolley Problem

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A Thought Experiment Called The Trolley Problem

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In 1967, a British Philosopher, Philippa Foot came up with a thought experiment called the trolley problem. It questions human's morality and sets a good example for the consequentialism philosophical view. While in modern times, it is being studied in the ethics of making an autonomous car. The dilemma is about choosing whether to save five lives or one given that the train was originally on its way to kill those five people. Unsurprisingly, most people would choose to save five against one because it seems morally or ethically correct. But this according to utilitarianism school, achieving the most agreeable-to-all goal. However, as the trolley problem was developed to involve more complicated dilemmas - the transplant case - most people started that to divert from such view and resort to others. Our choices are determined by our ethics - what we consider right or wrong, good or bad, just and unjust, fair and unfair, responsible and irresponsible. But how we reached to such judgment or to decide on to what's right from wrong has long been debated by philosophers. From the Divine Command Theory to Egoism and Aristotle's virtues theory to Kant’s deontology and the Utilitarianism’s views, this paper shall investigate how each school shall respond to the trolley problem.

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To being with, the divine command theory, it is the belief what is moral or immoral is decided upon by the divine himself. It is the oldest and most widely acclaimed ethical theory in the world because of two fundamental reasons. First, the purpose of religion or what God wants us to be is to achieve an ultimate spiritual transformation. Hence, the Holy books are God’s guide to such spiritual quests, in other words, they provide us with an ethical roadmap. Second, as it has been a problem for ethical absolutism to find a ground for morality, the divine command theory provides such ground. Thus, it is simple and supposedly one shall not run into an ethical dilemma once he follows the Holy Book. However, in the trolley problem, either choice will result in murder, an act that is vigorously forbidden in all Holy Books. So, how shall a believer act? Well, Holy books forbid the “intentional” killing of an innocent man. Accordingly, a person will not switch the train’s lane allowing the five people to die because their train is “destined” towards their death and so they were “destined” to die.

On the other hand, Immanuel Kant found it absurd to follow moral codes based on divine ethical grounds. He developed the deontology ethical theory, where our moral values are determined by fulfilling one’s duty. Kant then continued to outline two kinds of moral imperatives: Hypothetical and Categorical. Hypothetical imperatives where our moral maxim (or a principle of action) is dependent on our desires while categorical imperatives are moral commands, based on pure reason,!that any rational beings must follow. according to Kant, Determining such reason-based moral law must be universalized or practiced by all humans equally. So, stealing, murdering or lying cannot be moral even if it is for the sake of something good. Therefore, a deontologist would not switch the track because he would never break a moral command (murder) in order to save the other lives.

A contrary school to deontology is the consequentialist ethical theory. Instead of focusing on our intents or duties one considers the consequence of their actions. A branching school of consequentialism is the utilitarianism. It is where one must find the most suitable action that would satisfy or favor the largest amount of people. It is selfless and benevolent so it appeals to plenty. However, would killing an innocent man be morally right? Well, yes, because instead, one shall be saving a greater number of people and hence satisfying more lives. Utilitarianism acknowledges that there are unjust acts in this world, however, one must work on achieving better things regardless if it is morally incorrect. For example, how the fictitious character Robin Hood stole from the wealthy, greedy landlords in order to feed the poor and innocent people.

Another consequentialist school is the ethical egoism. According to the British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, he stated that most acts, if not all, are prompted by inner self-interest desires. Even if it is as merry as a simple donation because then it seems a person has power over the poor or achieves an inner satisfaction. This belief - where our moral value is to pursue self-interest - is called ethical egoism. It may seem vile at first to personally admit such thing but in Plato’s The Republic, Socrates defended egoism in the past. Using “The Myths of Gyges” story, he claimed that pursuing self-interest is something natural and must not be looked down on but rather we must embrace it. This lead to the social contract theory which views humans as solitary, aggressive and competitive by nature and hence, inflicting harm upon others to advance our desires is an inevitable act. Thereby, we claim a social agreement (laws) to escape the danger of the “state of nature”. An egoistic person placed under the trolley problem thought experiment will save the five victims in order to satisfy his desires of becoming a champion or being applauded for his chivalrous sacrifice decision of the individual man.

While the divine command theory and deontology preaches distinctive codes to be a moral person, the virtue theory does not. It instead summons all humans to practice a virtuous life where there is a balanced and harmonious integration of the various behaviors, values, emotions and attitudes in the right or moderate way i.e., the Golden Mean. It is a doctrine created by Aristotle that is based on the moderations in our moral virtues such as courageous, generosity, temperance etc. Nevertheless, Aristotle claimed that not all behaviors or emotions are appropriate for a Golden Mean analysis. Things like theft, adultery or murder are “censuried as being intrinsically wicked…. They are always sinful”. Hence, concerning the trolley problem, a murder is a murder regardless of whether it is intentional or not or whether it is five against one. A person abiding by such a school would be left perplexed. However, a perfectly courageous person would switch the lanes saving all five men because he would have the nerve to act under stress at least.

Personally, I would not switch the train’s track. Although, I am neither deontologist nor a utilitarianist, not switching the train track is based on my morals that were divinely grounded. The idea of intentional murder is simply prohibited in my religion and I find it compelling to murder intentionally. I believe in God’s destiny in people's lives so if the train was meant for them then this was probably for the best. Afterall, God works our destiny in mysterious ways yet what seems eventually best for us. However, I strongly validate the ideas of other schools but in certain situations. One cannot simply adopt a single school throughout his life but must find their optimum use in distinct situations.

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