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Would you pull the lever?

This is a moral dilemma first posed by the British philosopher Philippa Foot back in 1967. 

A runaway trolley is careering down a railway track and approaching a junction. Beyond the junction there are five people tied down on the rails. They will certainly be killed if nothing is done.

However, you are standing next to a lever that – if pulled – would divert the trolley on to a different track. The problem is that there is one person tied to that track. your action will therefore kill that person.

So what is the right thing to do? Let things take their course? Kill one person to save five?

  • Question /

    All else being equal, would you pull the lever?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question /

    The five people are children. The one person is an adult. Will you pull the lever?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question /

    The five people are adults. The one person is a child. Will you pull the lever?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question /

    The five people are adults who are peacemakers. The one person is Adolf Hitler. Will you pull the lever?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question /

    The five people are mass murderers. The one person is the Dalai Lama. Will you pull the lever?

    • Yes
    • No

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What do you think?

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7 Comments

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  1. The moral thing to do is to pull the lever to save the five with all things being equal. The immoral thing to do is to do whatever the majority of the world would do. In this world that we live in now, most of the people on this Earth do not do anything. Once you throw other moral factors into the equation, then the answers are simple for questions 2 through 5. This one was an interesting find because I like philosophy and I have read philosophers such as Kant, Plato, and Augustine.

  2. my brain hurts, starting the day with a moral dilemma is tough.

    You laid out the dilemma, i’ve seen it in many forms beyond this. The issue is the value of one life, the value of 5 lives and the reality of choices.

    Given time and knowing the reality of physics, if the distance is great enough then the easy button is to freeze the wheels by locking them and then cutting power to the trolley, this would force the train off the track.

    you may as the engineer die, but you would not kill anyone.

    • Your solution is what we ex-moral philosophers (OK – I studied it for three years back in the early 1970s!) would call a cop-out! Apart from that, you are standing at the side of the track with a lever in your hand!

      I would say that it it is not just one issue. It is about the value of lives. As originally set, the choice is a numerical one, but it can become qualitative – is one life worth more than another, and – if so – what are the criteria for making that choice?

      Another issue is that of taking positive and negative actions. Do you allow deaths to happen by doing nothing, or do you cause a death to happen by doing something?

        • But that misses the point of the problem! Philosophy doesn’t work like that!

          The question is – if you had to make a choice, what would it be? You can set the problem in other ways if you like, but the interest comes in making a choice and then justifying it.

          • Einstein once said that if we look at problems the same way over and over, the only limit is what we are willing to see.

            I do understand the rules. I simply choose to see ways through problems that allow for successful outcomes without bad choices!

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