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It is more ethical to kill five people rather than one person. (Please read description)

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 3/6/2015 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 804 times Debate No: 71260
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (3)
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Philisophical/Ethical debating.
I am aware that although there may be no correct answer, as my debate is based purely on abstract thought, although I am intrigued to see what the thoughts/opinions will be.

The topic of debate is as follows:

I would like to start off by submitting a scenario. Suppose you are travelling down a track in a runaway trolley Cart, you are travelling at 60mph and the brakes are broken. At the end of the track in the distance you notice 5 workers going about their day. Assume that you know for certain that the impact of the trolley cart will kill them all for sure. You notice that the steering wheel in the trolley cart does work, and so you could veer off onto a bend in the track, but at the end of the other track is 1 single worker. You have the choice of killing 5 workers, or killing 1.

In this debate I will argue that it is more ethical to kill the 5 workers than it is to kill the 1 worker.
I urge anyone who would like to argue otherwise to accept this challenge and get involved in what is sure to be a very interesting debate.


I am interested as you why you think killing 5 people opposed to 1 is more ethical. I'd like to hear about it.
Debate Round No. 1


In the above scenario, I pose the question: "Kill 5 people, or veer off the track and simply kill one". A utilitarian would argue that it is better to spare the lives of the 5 workers and kill one as it results in the greater good. However, I argue that if in this situation I would kill the five workers and spare the one worker off the track.

My argument is based on consequential morality. By letting the runaway trolley cart kill the five workers, you are essentially a passive bystander. The act of conciously turning the steering wheel to the other track involves you in the situation and results in your choice becoming real. It is your choice to turn the steering wheel and therefore it is your choice that results in the death of the one worker on the other track. Left to ru. It's course the trolley cart would have killed the five workers, and you would have had nothing to do with it.

Consider the possibility that you were not in fact in the trolley cart. Without any action performed by yourself in the trolley cart, it would have killed the five workers on the track. Thereby I argue that by simply not changing the course of the trolley cart, means that you are morally exonerated as a result of no concious choice of your own.
By making the choice to turn the steering wheel you are choosing to murder someone. It is you that will cause the death of the worker, rather than the trolley that will cause the death of the 5 other workers. The troller cart killing the five workers is a tragic incident that would have happened with or without your presence at the event. I will expand on this argument by using an example.
Suppose you are a doctor who is looking after 2 patients, one of the patients is terminally ill and has but a year to live, while the other needs and heart transplant and if he doesn't get the organ in the next few weeks he will die. As the doctor, you have a choice, you can either sacrifice the life of the terminally ill patient without his consent and give the second patient the heart he needs, or you can wait and let them both die. I am right to assume that most people wouldn't sacrafice the life of the first patient for the second patient. This is based on the same concept. It seems more morally just to let the events occur and not become involved. Through sacraficing the life of the first patient to save the second you are making a concious decision that will result in the death of one person to save another. In the same way in the trolley cart example, the death of one person will be your choice, rather than simply a tragic event that has occurred. In both examples a death will be the result of a desicion that you have made.

Therefore, morally I believe that not having any influence on the trolley cart in the first example results in a more ethical outcome. In the same way in the second example I have given, although two lives will be lost rather than just one, it is more morally righteous to allow them both to die than to make a decision that will result in the death of one person.

I look forward to hearing your responses.


Your point is definitely thought provoking, and I see what you are trying to stay. Still, If you chose to stay on the track without any influences and kill the five workers, you had the opportunity to spare 4 lives but chose not to. Therefore, by making this decision, aren't you still making a conscious choice? You wouldn't be just a passive bystander in the cart if you chose to hit the five workers, considering you had the chance to save more lives but passed it up. Just as your choice would cause the death of the one worker, the same would happen if you did nothing since you chose to take the five worker's lives instead. Whatever choice you make you are killing someone, except in one case you kill more than the other.

The example you gave is a bit different, since the choice you make is not up to you because the terminally ill patient didn't give his consent. Unless there is another donor, there really isn't anything anyone would be able to do, since you can't just take the heart from the terminally ill patient.

So, I come back to my first argument. I think looking at this from a pure logical standpoint, you would be saving lives if you made the decision to hit the one worker. Also, you are still making a choice to stay on the track, therefore you wouldn't just be a passive observer to the situation if you chose to hit the five workers.
Debate Round No. 2


You make a valid point con. In rebuttal of this, I would like to return to my main argument. As said this scenario is an example of consequential morality. I believe that the main difference in the 5 workers/1 worker scenario is that if you chose to veer the trolley onto the adjoining track to kill the 1 worker, you will be committing an act of murder.
Murder is defined as the act of killing another human being under conditions specifically covered in law characterised by deliberation and premeditation. By deliberating the options on the track infront of you you make a concious choice to kill 1 person, resulting in a premeditated killing, murder.

In the five workers scenario, you are not responsible for the deaths of the people who are killed by the trolley cart. You have made no decision that results in the death of those people. You are hurtling down a track that will almost certainly result in death however you have not chosen this, nor have you previously deliberated or premeditated the killing of five people. Thereby I believe that you could potentially classify the killing of the five workers as accidental death.
Accidental death is defined as a death resulting from an unusual event that wasn't intended or premeditated.
Morally therefore, the act of murdering someone is unjust, as I am sure everyone accepts. Being involved in a scenario that results in accidental death however leaves you morally exonerated as stated above.

Perhaps the earlier point about passive bystanding was not best phrased however, I submit that by killing the five workers - although on a grandeur scale seems unjust, for the person involved it provides moral equilibrium within the person themself.

To end my argument I would like to pose a question to Con.
Could you live in a society that makes decisions for you based one what appears to be morally just? Leaving the trolley to run its course would, rather crudely put I am aware, be an act of destiny. This is at the hands of nature, however by changing the course of the trolley you are making a choice that results in an outcome. In a similar way, as a doctor in the other example I posed, by choosing to harvest the heart of the terminally ill patient to save an otherwise healthy man you are making a decision on the behalf of someone else in order to arrive to a solution. Killing the five at face value appears to promote the good of the many over the one as utalitariunism would suggest but it is a naive view and one without a true understanding of the consequences. The immediate benefits to the five are evident but the long term negative affects of sacraficing a man are many. A society which would allow or even condone the sacraficing of one life for many as a part of its culture would not survive for long.

Many Thanks to Con for accepting this challenge, and thank you for an interesting philosophical debate! :)


First of all, I would like to commend you on cleaning up your argument here. I think your last argument was very strong, especially since you mentioned by purposefully changing your direction it would be murder.

I get by not changing course, it technically would be your 'destiny' and also you would have no interference on the situation, so it could be counted as a plain accident. Still, I want to pose a situation for you. Since the trolley crash would be fatal for the workers, I would assume it would also be fatal for you in the cart. In this case, would you rather die knowing you took one live opposed to five (Therefore saving 4 lives) or die knowing you lived your 'destiny'? I, for one, would rather die knowing I saved lives. I really do understand that killing the five would seem morally just to some, but for me looking at this completely logically, taking 1 life opposed to 5 seems like an easy choice.

Murder or not, either choice you take would result in death, though you have the power to change the amount you kill. I would not care the act would technically be considered murder. Personally, without even knowing the full situation I would steer toward the option where I could save lives. But this could just be me, considering I think more about the logical option and simple numbers opposed to the moral rightness and philosophy of the situation. Since you are making a split second decision, you also wouldn't have time to debate about it as we are doing now. You see one person and five, most people would just automatically make the choice.

Anyways, thanks for the awesome debate! As I mentioned before, it was very thought provoking.
Debate Round No. 3
3 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 3 records.
Posted by BillyBobbyIII 3 years ago
Its a very interesting lecture but I must say I would save the five at the expense of the one.
Posted by NatashaEgreeff 3 years ago
I hadn't, the debate actually came about as one of my friends studying philosophy and ethics at university and this was included in one of her lectures, she came home and told me about it. But I will go and watch the Harvard lecture now! :)
Posted by BillyBobbyIII 3 years ago
I see you watched the (I believe it was called this at least) Harvard lecture "Morality of Murder.
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