The Instigator
Pro (for)
The Contender
Con (against)

THW: Pull the lever in the "trolley problem".

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 7/30/2016 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Debating Period
Viewed: 1,229 times Debate No: 94267
Debate Rounds (3)
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The problem is as follows:

There are five people on a track, and they are about to be run over by a runaway trolley! However, you are next to a switch which, if you pull, will divert the trolley onto a different track, hitting the one person who is on that track, instead.

We are assuming that the only way to save the five people is to pull the lever- you can't yell at them to move off the track, for instance. We're also assuming that the trolley is absolutely guaranteed to hit and kill whoever is in its path.

As proposition, I will argue that yes, you should pull the lever, killing one person rather than five. My opponent, therefore, will have to argue that you should not pull the lever.


I will argue as indicated above that you should not pull the lever. The principle my opponent is supporting seems to be that it is better to kill one so five could live. Consider a simple modification to the trolley problem. This time you are standing on a bridge and instead of a lever there is a fat man next to you. For the sake of this case, let"s say you know that if you push the fat man over he will die but stop the train from hitting the five people on the track. Is this justifiable? It is essentially the same problem.

Furthermore, consider this case. Imagine yourself a doctor who has five patients. Each needing a valuable organ transplant; a heart, a kidney" etc. each will die if there is not a donor soon. In the next room over you have a perfectly healthy 18 year old who happens to be the perfect donor for all five other patients. To apply the principle that it is better to kill one to save five would justify killing this 18 year old and harvest his organs for the five.

Hopefully by this point it should be clear that the principle in question is immoral. This is because it is a violation of the harm principle. Essentially, the harm principle is summed up in this way; The right to swing your fist stops at the point in which it hits my nose. The point here is that we are free to take actions so long as they do not harm others. In the case of the trolley problem, you are free to do whatever you can to save those in harms way, but not at the expense of harming someone else. Who are we to decide that the one should die or that others should live?
Debate Round No. 1


I would think to thank my opponent for their points, and for accepting my motion.

There is something fundamentally different about each of the cases my opponent proposes and the one I did, and I will attempt to illustrate this as follows:

Imagine instead of having to switch the points, the points have not been observed, and are therefore in a state of quantum superposition- they simultaneously send the trolley down both tracks, and down neither. Quantum physics is weird. When we observe the points, we would hope that the state it collapses into is one where the trolley is directed towards killing the fewest people. The only difference between such a situation and the one I propose in the motion is the positive act of flipping the switch, against the neutral act of merely observing which state the points are in. Humans seem to have an innate tendency to consider positive actions, such as flipping a switch, to be more harmful than neutral ones, such as observing the points, or negative ones, such as not flipping the switch. This is illogical- if the "right" case is for the switch to be in a particular configuration, how we get to it should be irrelevant to what this configuration itself is, regardless of whether we have to switch the points or not, provided the result is identical.

Harm principle does not state that one may not cause harm, but rather that one should minimise the harm dealt to all sentient parties. That is to say, that one should flip the switch, killing one person, as this harms fewer people than not flipping the switch and killing five.
The situations my opponent proposes are indeed different enough from the situation that I proposed as to make the moral action to do nothing and to allow five to die- in the case of the fat person, in pushing him, we create a world in which it is acceptable to push fat people off bridges if we see this as a moral thing to do. In such a world, the millions of fat people who exist around the world would be terrified of going outside as they are viewed as disposable, and therefore we have done more harm to more people than we would have prevented in saving the lives of five people.
Likewise, in the case of the doctor, in killing the patient to harvest his organs, we create a world in which patients do not feel safe going to the doctor in case they are killed for their organs. and therefore we have done more harm to more people- who may even die as a result of not going to the doctor- than we have prevented in saving the lives of five people.

It is worth noting that in a vacuum in which the results of our decisions have absolutely no affect beyond the scenario we are confronted with, pushing the fat man or killing one patient both become the moral thing to do, as we have prevented more harm than we have caused. However, we do not exist in such a vacuum and hence it is not moral to do these things.

The trolley problem as I originally presented it is different to the other situations my opponent proposed as it does not have an equivalent harmful, knock-on effect to society as a whole which would tip the balance and make it immoral to act in the way required to save five people. Therefore, I urge the reader to hold the position I initially proposed, which is that it is, in fact, moral to flip the switch in the previously outlined scenario.
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Debate Round No. 2
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Debate Round No. 3
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