the trolley problem


after talking about decision making and responsability with one of my friends -16.5 years old teenager- he suggested me a book: The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart. (i wish i would read books like these at the age of 16!)

he actually prescribed it to me. yes, doctor E., i will take my book medicine! – i promised him.

so did i and here i am, finding this book worth of reviewing it, but before i actually do that, let me add a short comment: this book and the theory behind is mind blow!


the main idea behind the whole complex problem is quite simple and was developed by british philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967. something went wrong and our tram driver can’t stop for sure the vehicle he is driving. on the main track, where the tram is heading forwards are five workers. the driver has two possibilities: do nothing –by this killing the five workers, who can’t get off the track – or, steer the track to the right, where on the secondary line we have only one worker. The main question is: would you steer and give up the life of one, in order to save the five (utilitarianism) or you wouldn’t play God and just let everything ongoing, killing the five workers on the main line?!

it’s an ethical question that is to be stressed out by this imaginary experiment.

the result of this attempt was what we call today trolleyology. trolleyologist kept going further by adding elements to this story, or inventing new ones with different circumstances.


you may feel that this trolleyology is something like scholasticism did, by asking hair splitting questions like: how many angels can dance on a pin? by adding new elements and new stories, the moral problem actually gets more complicated, but also helps to take better decisions (hopefully).

for example, in 1985 philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson changed the plot a little, inviting us to add an element to the story. let’s imagine the same story, without a tram driver, but with a switch standing near you. you can change the tram from one line to the other one – what do you decide as an outsider who has no professional responsibility for the action? you let fate make it’s course or kill one worker in order to save five others? and what if there is no switch and you realize that the only way stopping the tram is to throw a heavy weight in front of the tram – but you only have a very fat guy who you can push from a bridge in front of the tram, by this killing the fat guy, but sparing the life of the others. results show that you would not push and kill the fat guy in order to save the others, but you would steer or change the switch from the main line and kill the one worker versus the five. it’s killing in both cases, but do you see umber between the stories and decisions?


in his book, thomas cathcart enlightened the case from many other aspects: what would an altruist ultra-christian say about the case, or how would a Kant-fan philosophy teacher comment this, or what would the church say, what would lay people think about it and so one.

this book was a great subscription.

you should also read it, no matter the profession you have.