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Resolving the "trolley problem"

Richard Stallman


The Trolley Problem poses this question: if a trolley is about to run over and kill five people standing on the tracks, and you can shunt it to a different track where it would only kill one person, should you do it? Or what if you could save those five by throwing a person near you onto the tracks; should you do it?

Many people feel intuitively that it would be wrong to throw that person onto the tracks, and an argument attributes this to a supposed essential difference between killing someone and deciding to let that person die.

I disagree. I too believe it would be wrong to throw that person onto the tracks, in real life, but not in the hypothetical trolley problems. There is no ethically significant difference between killing a person and letting the person die, if (as supposed in the trolley problems) there is no doubt that the death will occur.

The reason, in real life, why killing someone is ethically different from letting someone die is that real life is full of surprises: the person might not really die. If you kill him, his death is pretty certain (though not totally; just recently a man was hanged in Iran and survived). If you merely don't take action to save him, he might survive anyway. He might jump off the track, for instance, or someone might pull him off. All sorts of things might happen. Likewise, throwing the one person onto the track might not succeed in saving the other five; how could you possibly be sure it would? You might find that you had done nothing but cause one additional death. Thus, in real life it is a good principle to avoid actively killing someone now, even if that might result in other deaths later.

The trolley problems invalidate the principle because of the unlikely certainty that they assume. Precisely for that reason, they are not a useful moral guide for most real situations. In general, difficult artificial moral conundrums are not very useful guides for real-life conduct. It's much more useful to think about real situations. In the free software movement I have often decided not to propose an answer to a general question until I had some real cases to think about.

For real driverless cars, the trolley problem never arises: the right thing to do, whenever there is a danger of collision, is to brake as fast as possible.

More generally, the goal is to make sure to avoid any trolley problem.

Copyright 2013 Richard Stallman Released under Creative Commons Noderivatives 3.0 license