Are You Willing to Kill 1 to Save 5?

Jon Hawkins

What the Trolley Problem reveals about your values.

The Trolley Problem dates back to Phillipa Foot’s 1967 paper — The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect.”

And since then, it’s usage has spiralled out of control — regularly featuring in Philosophical works from the likes of Judith Jarvis Thompson and Peter Singer.

It has also become an internet phenomenon; with Facebook and Twitter pages posting adapting versions of the problem to millions of followers.

It seems we all know what the problem poses — and our answer gives us insight into the ethical values we hold.

But, it seems, what the conclusion of the trolley problem should be is largely open to dispute.

So; is it permissible to kill someone as a means to save 5?

Your answer could reveal a lot about the ethical values that you live by on a day to day basis — and could dictate the decisions that you make.

Recap — The Thought Experiment.

You’re walking alongside a train track when you hear a sudden scream.

The train track in front of you splits into two lanes.

To your horror, there are people tied to the ground of both lanes. On the left lane, five people are tied down — and to the right, one person is.

A train is fast approaching the left-hand lane; it’s about to run over, and kill all five people. There’s no time to go and untie any of these people. You’re left powerless.

But you do have access to a lever. If pulled; it will divert the train from the left lane to the right hand one. In effect, if you pull the lever; you will be killing one person to save five.

There are two questions that arise from this thought experiment:

  1. Objectively speaking, what is the morally right thing to do?
  2. Regardless of whether it is right or wrong, should you do it?

The train is almost here. So what will it be?

Most people have the intuition that pulling the lever is the right thing to do and that they should, therefore, do it. But, after some clever Philosophical analysis — it seems that this conclusion just can’t hold.

Reasons For — You Should Kill 1 to Save 5.

The proposal that you should pull the lever is a viewpoint that is typically adopted by act utilitarians.

They claim in any token action; what is morally right is what produces the most welfare overall. That welfare could be anything — from happiness to general well-being.

On this viewpoint; more welfare is (at least, at face-value) produced when you pull the lever:

Because, assuming the people tied down are complete strangers; it’s logical to assume each of their lives is worth the same amount.

Then, overall, more welfare is produced when you five people are saved, rather than just one.

Not only that but less upset is caused too; think of all the lives that would be affected if five died. By killing one, you are reducing the mourning and heart-ache by 4/5.

Act Utilitarians think they have it all figured out — you should just pull the lever. And based on intuitions, I have no doubt that this is the conclusion you came to, too.

“The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.”― Leon Trotsky

Reasons Against — Don’t Pull That Lever.

There are multiple different justifications as to why you shouldn’t pull the lever, so let’s talk through a few.

Phillipa Foot.

In her 1967, proponent of the Trolley Problem, Foot, concluded you shouldn’t pull the lever.

She did so by distinguishing two types of rights people might have:

a. Negative Rights — Rights to non-interference. These are instances where you don’t have to act.

b. Positive Rights — To protect these rights, we are morally obliged to provide some sort of service.

According to Foot, Negative Rights trump Positive ones.

She gives the example of charity. On the Act Utilitarian view above; maximising welfare would require that we give almost everything we have ever earned away — in order to maximise welfare. Because at any given moment, someone dying in poverty would be better off using the money we have in the bank.

Foot’s view rejects this proposal as counterintuitive. Instead, she claims that we have a negative duty to keep our items — and that trumps any positive duty we have to save someone else. Because of that, giving to charity is supererogatory: it’s good for us to do, but it’s certainly not obligatory.

Applying this to the Trolley Problem — she illustrates we have two choices:
1. Not pulling the lever illustrates a negative right — that one person is going to die without you acting; so by not interfering, you aren’t killing anyone.

2. Pulling this lever is a positive right — if you interfered, you are directly bringing about the death of someone. That’s a moral responsibility that you would bear.

Therefore, according to Foot — if we don’t pull the lever, we aren’t killing anyone; rather, bad luck and unfortunate events caused five people to be tied down and killed. But if we pull the lever, even though we save five in the process; we are directly killing someone.

Hence, we should not pull the lever.

“If the Martians take the writings of moral philosophers as a guide to what goes on on this planet they will get a shock when they arrive.” ― Philippa Foot

The Organ Harvesting Case.

Another reason for rejecting the Act Utilitarian justification is presented by an organ harvester case.

Imagine a perfectly healthy person walks into a hospital. Now suppose that this person has all the organs needed to save five ill people.

Is it morally permissible for a doctor to kill that one person to save five?

If you adopted the act utilitarian principle — then this is no different to the trolley problem case; you should kill that one person.

But this case carries with it an important weight. There are five people out there in need of organ transplants, and if we just killed you and harvested your organs we could save them.

So, on this view, it’s permissible to just go and grab someone off the street and kill them. And that seems counterintuitive because we would all be living in fear.

Maybe you do want to say pulling the lever is morally right — but if you do, it logically follows you believe the organ harvester case is perfectly permissible. That’s a burden you’ll have to explain, or bite the bullet on.

Indirect Utilitarians.

Some special indirect utilitarians (like Railton) — are act utilitarians, but believe that what we should do isn’t always what’s morally right.

In the trolley problem case; they state pulling the lever is the action that, there and then, produces the most welfare — so that makes it morally right.

But, they argue, even if it is right — we shouldn’t pull the lever, because less welfare is produced overall.

That’s because if we did pull the lever, the organ harvester case would become permissible — meaning that we would all live in fear of being murdered at any moment for our organs. And that would lead to less welfare/happiness.


Deontologists, like Kant, argue human beings have intrinsic rights — and, they argue we have a duty to protect that right.

They focus on the intentions of actions, rather than the outcomes. They state that the reason or intention for your action is called a maxim.

One theory they adopt is the universal law — which states that we should only act on maxims that it would be possible for everyone to adopt.

They ask — “what makes you so special?” What justifies the proposal that you should be allowed to perform an action no-one else could.

When they say “everyone adopts” they mean we should avoid actions that face:

It’s because of this that it’s morally impermissible, on deontology, to kill someone. Because the maxim “to kill” faces a contradiction of conception — if everyone did it, there would be no one left to kill, and you would also be dead.

The trolley problem faces a double negative — someone’s killed regardless. But, if you commit to Foot’s “positive” and “negative” duties, then not pulling the lever isn’t killing someone, whereas pulling the lever is. Therefore, you shouldn’t pull it.

It’s tricky, however, because deontology could allow for the pulling of the lever if the maxim is universalizable. And it seems “kill 1 to save 5,” is a universal maxim.

So perhaps it is permissible.

“Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.”— Immanuel Kant

The Takeaway.

Your intuitions to the trolley problem reveal important facts about your ethical values and the principles you adopt.

This is because largely unpleasant consequences logically follow from believing it’s right to pull the lever.

The train is here. What will it be?

  1. Pull the lever — Accept that more welfare/happiness is produced if we kill one to save five. Even if that does lead to problems like the organ harvester case; that’s something you are willing to bite the bullet on.
  2. Don’t touch the lever — Acknowledge that by not doing anything, you aren’t killing anyone. But as soon as you interfere you bear the moral responsibility of your choices.

Is there even a right answer to this dilemma?

“What one thinks is right is not always the same as what others think is right; no one can be always right.” ― Roy T. Bennett

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.


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