The trolley problem, and what you should do if I’m on the tracks

Link post

Origi­nally pub­lished in French. Trans­la­tion by Épiphanie.

Trig­ger warn­ing: Death, suicide, and mur­der. Trol­ley prob­lem.

This is quite the con­ven­tional and eth­i­cal co­nun­drum: You are near train tracks, and a train is rol­ling down the hill. It is go­ing to run over 4 peo­ple who are tied to the rails of the main track. How­ever, you can change the train’s di­rec­tion to a sec­ondary track by pul­ling a lever; so that it runs over only one guy, also tied down the rails. Should you pull the lever?

I do be­lieve there is a more in­ter­est­ing way to frame it: What would you choose if you are your­self tied to the rails, alone, while the train is not head­ing to­ward you yet. My own an­swer is very sim­ple: I want the per­son de­cid­ing where the train should go to have no doubts they should pull the lever! Be­cause, for lack of con­text, I as­sume that the other four peo­ple are just me, or rather copies of me. That’s a bit sim­plis­tic, of course they are not perfect clone. But as far as con­crete pred­i­cates go, they are in­dis­t­in­guish­able. That is to say I have odds of be­ing on tracks alone of 1 in 5, and odds for be­ing in the group of 4 in 5. And tell you what, I pre­fer dy­ing with 20% prob­a­bil­ity be­cause of what some­one did, rather than to die with 80% prob­a­bil­ity be­cause no one was ever will­ing to take the bur­den of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

I know many would not pull the lever, or at least be very re­luc­tant to. That is pre­cisely the rea­son I am writ­ing this post: I wish to make it pub­lic that I be­lieve peo­ple should pull the lever. More im­por­tantly, I wish that many many more peo­ple would also share pub­li­cly this opinion. Then, if it is of pub­lic no­to­ri­ety, the one who has to pull the lever would know they can do it with­out any re­morse, as they will not have to face any so­cietal con­se­quences for what they’ve done. So all in all, this would raise my odds of sur­vival of 60 points! That’s quite something

But what if it were to truly hap­pen?

Be aware that I am not say­ing any­thing more than what I have liter­ally writ­ten. I have full rights over in­con­sis­ten­cies. Were I to be on the tracks alone, there is no tel­ling what I would do. Maybe I would cry and plead not to pull the lever, maybe I would de­pict the other four peo­ple as worse than Hitler, or I would in­dulge the per­son into think­ing they’d bear the bur­den of my death. Once I know that the prob­a­bil­ity of me dy­ing jumps from 20 to 100%, I would -I pre­sume- fight hard for my sur­vival. Similarly, if I am on the tracks all alone, and I am the one who has to de­cide where the train should go, I am not plag­ing at all I would pull the lever.

Or maybe I will. Maybe I will be con­sis­tent. Right now, up there in my apart­ment where the worst thing I can think of to hap­pen is my con­tract not be­ing re­newed, I can­not be­gin to imag­ine what it would be like. I can say what I hope for: I wish to be con­sis­tent in this situ­a­tion… It would be ex­tremely un­fair and pointless to have an­other per­son bear my death on their own hands along the guilt that goes with it.

I see how­ever only one prob­lem to this policy. If this situ­a­tion were to to be iter­ated fre­quently enough such that there is a se­lec­tion mechanism among the sur­vivors’ be­hav­ior, then even­tu­ally the al­tru­ists would dwin­dle out in fa­vor of ego­ists. So I am go­ing to be op­ti­mistic and as­sume in this post that this trol­ley situ­a­tion hap­pens only in an ex­cep­tional fash­ion.


As with many such similar prob­lems, it seems to me that one of the main flaw of the ques­tion is in ev­ery­thing that is not said. Every­thing that makes up the prob­lem in it­self, even, is ig­nored in fa­vor of some­thing so the­o­retic that it turns the prob­lem so ab­stract it has no solu­tions at all.

For in­stance, one of the im­por­tant as­sump­tion for this prob­lem is the one that peo­ple are cho­sen at ran­dom. Let us break this as­sump­tion: For in­stance, sup­pose the villain of this story has awaited know­ing ev­ery­one’s opinion be­fore un­fold­ing their scheme. The villain tie peo­ple of the opinion “do not change the train’s di­rec­tion” on the main track and on the sec­ond track, peo­ple of the opinion “change the train’s di­rec­tion”. Then I would be on the sec­ondary track, and if one were to listen to me, I would die. Yet I could have sur­vived had I just thought like ev­ery­one “don’t pull the lever”. When de­pict­ing this situ­a­tion, I re­al­ise there is some­thing very para­dox­i­cal about it. But what I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in, is that by re­mov­ing the hy­poth­e­sis of ran­dom­ness, the 20/​80% ra­tio does not hold any­more. That is what I am a bit anx­ious about when writ­ing this post. I wary it be­comes fuel in fa­vor of kil­ling peo­ple hav­ing the same po­si­tion as I do, while chang­ing noth­ing for oth­ers.

Another as­sump­tion I did not take into ac­count thus far: Who are the peo­ple tied to the rails? If the train kills me, and the 4 oth­ers are worse-than-Hitler peo­ple, I would be a bit em­bar­rassed (and dead). The­o­ret­i­cally, if I were tied alone and the other group con­tains Hitler along with few other dic­ta­tors, I would still like to be saved. Note that I am against the death penalty, no ex­cep­tions and in fa­vor of a just trial for any­one, no ex­cep­tions. My ques­tion is differ­ent how­ever, and I still am pon­der­ing over what an­swer would be mine. I have no in­ten­tions for my life to be sac­ri­ficed for that of some tyrants. But I have also no in­ten­tions to be the kind of per­son that says their life is bet­ter than that of four oth­ers’, let alone that it can be de­cided in few mere sec­onds.

The last as­sump­tion that has been ig­nored is how did we get here in the first place. I mean, it’s not your mun­dane day-to-day situ­a­tion! And this ques­tion is im­por­tant even more so if we want to avoid it hap­pen­ing once more. The villain sce­nario is rather far-fetched, it seems this kind of situ­a­tion can hap­pen in real life, where tech­ni­cal de­ci­sions have to be taken fast. It can be, for in­stance, whether to choose be­tween one pedes­trian and a car full of pas­sen­gers. Or be­tween 4 pedes­tri­ans and a car with only one pas­sen­ger. Or one worker work­ing on the rails ver­sus sev­eral work­ing to­gether. And so on and so on...

Let’s be even more cyn­i­cal: imag­ine an ac­ci­dent in a com­pany which may kill four man­agers (by de­stroy­ing their office)m and you can pre­vent that by kil­ling a sin­gle workper­son in­stead. If peo­ple fol­low the policy and “always pull the lever”, none of the man­agers would have any real and strong in­cen­tive to en­sure that this kind of in­ci­dent does not oc­cur any­more. They are always be­ing saved and workpeo­ple are be­ing kil­led one by one. If this in­ci­dent ks go­ing to oc­cur five times or more, not pul­ling the switch at all may ac­tu­ally save more lives in the long run. Once again, I am not nec­es­sar­ily ask­ing for you to pull the lever in this kind of situ­a­tion.


This post is just long for “I am tak­ing a very strong pre­com­mit­ment for a situ­a­tion whose as­sump­tions are so strong them­selves that I can­not fathom they would ever hold”. Still, I was about to write a post on At­las Shrugged (spoilers:) and I fore­saw I would have to ex­plain why I’d never swear in good faith that “by my life and my love of it, [...] I will never live for the sake of an­other man, nor ask an­other man to live for mine.”