Is there a satisfactory solution to the trolley problem?

The terms of the dilemma

The trolley problem is a thought experiment revealing the kind of ethics used by each of us. The answers vary in significant proportion according to the places of the test, showing that there is no universal ethics but a cultural preference.

Several variants to the story. Here’s the one I heard first: a mine car rolls over a railroad track, out of control. Further down, 5 workers are working to repair the track. The impact will kill them (don’t look for an escape, the story assumes they have no chance of getting away with it). But 100 meters before their position is a switch that can send the crazy wagon on a cross track. Another worker is working on it. Isolated. Adam is near the switch. If he does nothing, 5 workers are killed. If he maneuvers the switch, only 1 is killed. What should he do?

Don’t hesitate!

Think before you read on, but not too long. Adam only has a moment to decide! Have you chosen? Ok. The majority response varies. In a panel with a highly utilitarian ethic, up to 80% of respondents make Adam maneuver the switch. Other panels are more sensitive to their involvement in the death of the lone worker. Barely half operate the switch.

Well agree with the hesitant. This dilemma has always amazed me by the amount of people who easily decide to send the wagon to kill 1 unexpected person rather than the targeted 5 people.


I put myself for a moment in the place of Adam, who maneuvered the switch and who later explains himself with the wife of the crushed worker:
She: My husband was not destined to die that day, was he?
Me: True…
Elle: So you thought it would be fairer for him to die rather than the 5 people, right?
Me, straightening up with dignity: Well yes. That’s what I would have decided in his place…
Elle: Did you ask him for his opinion?
Me, abandoning the pose: Uh… Not.
She: So you think you’re Almighty God, somewhere, right?
Me: Well…

Atrophied reflection

My decision, in reality, has nothing to do with ethics. Does utilitarianism, in this context, really deserve the title of philosophy? It terribly atrophies the reflection. The postulate it uses, “all life has the same value”, is true for large numbers, false for small ones.

It is adapted to the decisions of a president, who manages the lives of millions of people. But is it for you, surrounded by your family and friends? Technocracy can afford to treat individuals as soulless numbers. Not us, not in the ballet of everyday life where everyone holds a special place. We differentiate ourselves by affinities, celebrities, family proximities. Real society is unequal, not utilitarian.

A calculator instead of a mind

Let us not confuse the excellent postulate “all life deserves to be saved” with the fallacious “all life has the same value”. The first founded a charitable and caring society; the second dispenses with awkward questions. The same value for life, no matter what we have done with it?

Ethics is not a ceiling of fixed and irremovable precepts. Rather, it is a set of attractors, which illuminate each scene of a particular day. The effects of a moral judgment can reposition attractors, change their importance. Personal work, delicate and never definitive. Utilitarianism exempts us from this. No need to think, just count. 5 is greater than 1.

What if you are directly involved?

The dilemma is misleading by ignoring your position to you, the respondent. Are you being asked to respond as president or as if you were Adam with your hands on the switch? Adam, as an intermediary, is already distancing us from reality. An interesting variant of the dilemma is this:

There is no longer a switch but a bridge over the track where the crazy wagon is hurtling down. You are perched there with Octave, afflicted with a consequent overweight… which is a chance for the 5 workers. Only its enormous mass will be able to stop the killer wagon. Yours will not be enough. You have to push Octave over the railing. Do you do it?

The answers are reversed. It is the ‘no’ vote that wins 80% of the vote this time. However, this variant is calculated exactly like the other: kill 1 person to save 5. Same utilitarianism. But this time you are directly involved. The decision is more like murder.

Other variants…

… to the dilemma show the inanity of the postulate ‘all life has the same value’. Does Adam have to maneuver the switch if the isolated person on the crossing lane is your child? Or an artist you admire fervently, or a scientific genius, big hope for humanity? If it is a child or an old man? What to decide if the 5 people to be saved are bandits and sacrificed a good father? Or if the 5 are rather 2, 10, 100?

Utilitarian morality postulates that ethics and feelings are quantifiable, mathematizable. It does not work that way. When a bus crashes into a ravine with 5 or 50 passengers on board, you don’t feel a sadness 10 times stronger in the second case because there are 10 times more deaths. Your sadness is incomparably stronger, however, if a dear friend is one of the victims.


Let us refuse to respond hastily to the trolley problem. Its binary response tries to persuade us that we are robots equipped with utilitarian algorithms, counting and sacrificing without any qualms. In a situation as appalling as the wagon, most of us would be too paralyzed by uncertainty to maneuver the lever.

And that would be the best indecision to take…


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