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runaway train hypothetical - ends justify the means?

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 5/22/2014 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,386 times Debate No: 55250
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (18)
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there is a runaway train speeding towards a hundred people who are tied to the track. the only way to prevent them from being hit, is to pull a level. doing so will cause the train to go down another track, killing one person tied to the track.

some say the ends never justify the means. here, i'd argue they do, and you have to keep things proportional. see proportionalism.


Thank you to Pro for this debate.

In the trolley dilemma, there is a runaway trolley (or it could be a train) speeding towards five people (or it could be a hundred people) who are tied to a track. If you pull the lever, the trolley is diverted, killing only one person instead of five. Pro is arguing that it is right to pull the lever.

In the footbridge dilemma, there is a runaway trolley speeding towards five people who are tied to the track. You are standing on a footbridge above the track with another person, and if you push your companion off the bridge, his body will block the trolley and save the others. Should you push him?

This is the same problem in terms of outcome, but studies have shown that people tend to be a lot more conflicted about the footbridge dilemma than they are about the trolley dilemma (1). This is probably because pushing a person off a bridge feels more like murder than pulling a lever, and most people agree that murder is wrong.

Other situations that have increased moral confusion about the trolley dilemma are if the one person to be killed is a close relative or a child, or if - in simulated conditions - the person is affected by the sound of that one person screaming and begging to be saved.

In these variations of the trolley dilemma (but with the same outcomes), people's responses change because the end does not justify the means in their opinion. Some people believe that murder is wrong, that children deserve special protection, that one's family deserves special protection over outsiders, or that some actions are too emotionally horrible to commit.

Pro has the burden of proof to show that these people are wrong. I look forward to reading her arguments.


Debate Round No. 1


con basically just argues that people are fickle, so how can we engage in actions that are considered morally controversial?

a few things. one is the controversy is there no matter what. you either pull the lever o you don't. you either push the man off the bridge or you don't. that people are fickle doesn't mean one answer is better than the other. the ends dont justify the means isnt the default answer. we should be reasoning to the right conclucion. a hundred people dying is not worth one person dying instead. there might be a fuzzy in between, but that's jut life. it doesnt mean the clearer examples don't exist, or that perhaps at least sometimes, the nds do justify the means.


Moral decisions are always taken in the real world where there are countless variables and uncertainty. When we make up dilemmas, we try and limit the variables and make the outcomes as certain as possible. This is unrealistic and artificial, yes, but more importantly it has consequences for the nature of the question which may not be immediately apparent.

In Pro's trolley example with the lever, there are the following assumptions in relation to certainty and control.

1. The trolley will kill someone no matter what you do - there is 100% certainty. There is zero chance that they could somehow get off the tracks or that the trolley driver or another person could somehow intervene to prevent the tragedy.

2. That the actor has full control over the lever that shifts the tracks. There is no uncertainty in relation to the function of the lever - no chance that it might misfunction or that the action could somehow be interfered with.

To be in a situation of such certainty is very unusual in the real world. How is it possible? For instance, if you woke up all of a sudden and found yourself in the situation with the trolleys and the lever, with this knowledge about possibilities, would you believe it? You wouldn't - because there'd be the immediate possibility that you were dreaming or that it was a hallucination.

To really, sanely, be in that situation there would need to be a rational explanation.

In the real world, you could only know that there is no possibility of third party involvement if you were in a controlled environment of some kind - where the public is not permitted. Therefore, if you were there, it must mean that you are not a random passer-by but someone who has permission or authority to be present.

In relation to knowledge of the lever and how it works. A person who had never used the lever before could not be 100% about the way it works. Only someone who is familiar with the lever and has used the lever before could be so certain of its function.

So. We have an authorized person in a controlled environment with a lever they've used before. Most likely, the lever is in its current position because the actor has put it there. Even if not, the actor is responsible for the lever's position in the way a random passer-by would not be. That means that even if the actor does not move the lever, she is responsible for its position. This is implied by the limitations on the scenario as I have described.

She can choose to kill one person or she can choose to kill a group of people. The option of abstaining from responsibility does not exist.


Let's consider now, for comparison, the same scenario with a normal level of uncertainty. A random passer-by suddenly sees a trolley come barrelling towards a group of people who are somehow trapped on the tracks, but probably struggling to escape. In an instant, she needs to sum up these uncertainties:
  • they might escape
  • someone else might intervene
  • the person on the other track might get out of the way
  • the lever might work as expected or not
To decide whether or not to pull the lever in these uncertain conditions is a very different decision. In a way, the passer by can decide whether or not to become implicated in the disaster by acting. Her actions could be good or bad, or they could interfere with actions that other people take. This is very different from the first, certain situation, where the actor is already implicated.


A mother is standing on a footbridge with her little baby. Far below, she sees a trolley speeding towards a group of people on the tracks. Should she snatch her baby from the stroller and lob it over the barrier to get tangled in the trolley's wheels and thereby slow it down enough to avoid killing those strangers? Is she morally obliged to act that way because there are so many strangers and only one little baby?

Of course not. Because in the real world, there are too many variables and the future is unknowable. She can't be sure that something wouldn't happen to stop the trolley, or to divert it, or to get the people to safety. She can't be sure that her action of throwing the baby would have the desired effect - she might miss the tracks, or she might have understimated the force of the trolley.

However, she can be sure that throwing her own baby is likely to cause it harm, and she can be sure that if she lets the baby stay in the stroller it will probably be safe. She can also be sure that she is responsible for her own baby, and less responsible for a group of people that she hasn't seen before.



We make moral decisions in the real world, where there are countless variables and uncertainties and we cannot know the future. To some extent we can control our own actions. We can control the means. We can't control the ends because we don't know for sure what they will be. That is why the ends don't justify the means in the real world.
Debate Round No. 2


con goes on for a long time, basically just pointing out that in the real world, the variables are not so clear cut. this is a great point, but again, the purpose of the hypothetical is mainly to point out, that, yes, at least some times, shouldn't the ends justify the means? again, i never claim there isn't fuzzyy in between zone, just that sometimes the ends do justify the means.

con goes on to say that in a more realistic scenario all the variables wouldn't be so perfect, therefore the ends do not justify the means. even with his scenarios, though, 'not knowing the future to the T", the clearest action that can be known is that pulling the level would significantly reduce the number of deaths. you have unknowns, but the knowns are still enough to act.

really, what con is doing, is what many do... they try to divert attention from the moral act in and of itself. 'unknowns' and other practical considerations. the real question that should be argued though, is is it inherently wrong, or isn't it? one might almost deduce if we have even more perfect conditions that con was trying to make, that given those practical points aren't there, then the ends would justify the means.

end of the day, one life intentionally allowed to die, is worth a hundred lives untintentionally caused to die. that's a statement of inherent value... sometimes the ends do justify the means.


I think Pro has misunderstood the point I was trying to make, because she said the moral decision is "fuzzy" but that's not the point I'm making at all.

The resolution is whether the ends justify the means in the runaway train hypothetical, and pro had the burden to show that they do. In particular, the moral question is, are you justifying in taking action to kill one person if doing so will save many others? Pro has argued that even though killing one person may be wrong, because it saves many others, it is the right course of action.

There are two types of scenarios where this hypothetical might occur. In the first, there is 100% certainty in relation to the variables - that acting one way will kill so many people, that acting another will kill only one, and that nothing can intervene.

As I showed in the previous round, if we assume certainty and no third party intervention, it means that the moral actor is in a controlled environment in which they already have some kind of moral responsibility. Pro did not challenge this point, and so I assume she accepts it.

Therefore, there is no choice of refraining from action, because the actor is already implicated in the action that resulted in the group of people being in danger. The choice is only between the action to kill many and the action to kill one. This certain situation is not the dilemma of acting to kill or refraining to act and allowing people to die.

If we allow the possibility of not acting, then we by necessity introduce the idea of uncertainty. That is, if the actor does nothing, the group of people will probably die, and if she acts to kill the one person, the larger group will probably be saved.

Once uncertainty is introduced, the question is very different. If I'm on a footbridge with a companion who is standing on the edge, if I push him, it's an act to harm him. I can be almost certain that he will die or be seriously hurt if I push him off the bridge. His fall may slow the trolley and save the others, but it's uncertain. It might not work, and they might be saved anyway. We're trading a certain act of harm over an uncertain future benefit.

It is not justified.

When we think of these dilemmas, we imagine them with a kind of godlike certainty that is very artificial. Sometimes there is certainty in the real world, and that certainty carries with it rather profound implications as I have described.

When people respond to this moral question, when the different variations are presented, they are often very sensitive to the implications of context and uncertainty. Pro calls this "fickle" and "fuzzy" but that's not how it is at all.

The trolley dilemma is deceptive. It mixes up a certain, controlled context with an uncertain, uncontrolled one. But those two circumstances cannot coexist, as I have explained. It's just a mental trick.

Debate Round No. 3
18 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by wrichcirw 2 years ago
To add a bit to my comments:

"Another retort would be that what if this person with full knowledge was not the operator but the engineer that built this system? This engineer would not be responsible for positioning the lever into where it is currently."

Or, if not the engineer, what if they were shift workers? One shift would not be responsible for what the other shift does.


"My retort has been that assuming all of this is true, he's STILL not responsible for the situation that he finds himself in now - he is NOT responsible for causing those 5+1=6 people to have come into harm's way."

Just to flesh this out, if the guy at the lever met all 6 people, and found out that 5 of them want to go to ABC and the other guy wanted to go to XYZ and directed these 6 people to where they would have come to harm's way in the trolley scenario, then maybe the guy at the lever would have some responsibility regarding causality. But, at this point, we're departing from the trolley scenario and are materially adding to it...we can ask all kinds of other questions, such as "why doesn't this trolley have any brakes?", and "why isn't there a trolley operator inside the trolley to ensure that such accidents don't happen?", and etc...

The point of a hypothetical like this is that you control for all of these other externalities. You have a guy at the lever who knows the consequences of his action or inaction. It does not matter how he knows. It does not matter how he got there.
Posted by wrichcirw 2 years ago
"But suppose I DID know. Suppose I had full certainty over the consequences of pulling the lever. That implies not only that I have experience with levers but also that I'm sure that there's nobody around more qualified than me whose arrangement and plans won't be messed up by my action. Both of those together strongly imply that I am responsible for the status quo in terms of the lever's position. "

I think this is the core of our current disagreement. You insist that a person with this knowledge of certainty MUST imply that that person is the one responsible for causing the lever to be where it is now.

My retort has been that assuming all of this is true, he's STILL not responsible for the situation that he finds himself in now - he is NOT responsible for causing those 5+1=6 people to have come into harm's way.

Another retort would be that what if this person with full knowledge was not the operator but the engineer that built this system? This engineer would not be responsible for positioning the lever into where it is currently.
Posted by rross 2 years ago
Ohh. I see where you're coming from now. I just read that part of the debate with sdavio. Actually, I'm saying something a bit different. I'm saying that the consequences of certainty imply responsibility. I'm picking out a flaw, I guess, in the way the dilemma is presented. It's not so much a moral position, which is what I think sdavio is taking.
Posted by rross 2 years ago
No, I'm not talking about responsibility for the outcome. Responsibility may be the wrong word.
It's like this. The status quo is not random. If I came past a railway control tower (or whatever it's called) I'd be nervous to touch anything because I'd assume that all the lever and buttons were in their cuurent positions FOR A REASON. In other words, someone more qualifief than me had put them where they were.
If I were to pull a lever, I would be changing from non-involvement to involvement. That's the question - should I? and the answer is probably not because I have no idea what I'm doing.
But suppose I DID know. Suppose I had full certainty over the consequences of pulling the lever. That implies not only that I have experience with levers but also that I'm sure that there's nobody around more qualified than me whose arrangement and plans won't be messed up by my action. Both of those together strongly imply that I am responsible for the status quo in terms of the lever's position. Not the people on the tracks. Not the outcome necessarily. But the choice is no longer between intervention and non-intervention because I'm already implicated in the status quo, see?
Posted by wrichcirw 2 years ago
It's interesting, because the logic you're using is very similar to the logic sdavio used in our debate:

He essentially argued that anyone alive is responsible for causing everything. It's a very weird approach IMHO...maybe it's an Australian thing. We had a very long and involved discussion about it. I don't quite understand the philosophical underpinnings of his belief system, so I'll just leave it at that. I'm fairly convinced of my own regardless.
Posted by wrichcirw 2 years ago
In order for that guy to assume more responsibility for the scenario:

1) He'd have to be THE operator of that lever and
2) He'd have to be responsible for ensuring the tracks are clear so that such situations do not occur to begin with.

#1 does not change the parameters of the scenario, and #2 is not only predicated on #1 being true, but is also well beyond the parameters of the scenario. I've brought this up repeatedly...that guy is simply not responsible for the other 6 lives being jeopardized. He's only responsible for the outcome of the scenario given those lives are already jeopardized. So, you simply cannot say that he'd be responsible for killing 5 people...only that he'd be responsible for allowing 5 people to die.

If you think he's responsible for killing those 5 people, then you're also responsible for consciously and deliberately causing mass starvation in some African country somewhere. At some point the logic just gets ridiculous.
Posted by wrichcirw 2 years ago
But how would your interpretation of certainty change the scenario? Sure, let's say the guy at the lever is a professional trolley operator or something. How does that change the level of responsibility he has for determining the outcome? It simply doesn't.
Posted by rross 2 years ago
@wrichcirw. No, when I talk about uncertainty, I'm not really talking about the plausibility of the situation.

For example, imagine there was a big purple monster that was about to eat some children (implausible), and you have the option of throwing a rock at a window so that the sound of smashing glass distracts it and it lets the children go.

In the scenario, you have 100% certainty that your action will work as expected. How could this be? How could you be sure that a/ the rock will break the glass and b/ the monster would be distracted by it?

I suggest that CERTAINTY of effect implies familiarity with the situation. If you'd never come across the monster before, you couldn't know that it would react that way. You must have smashed glass to distract it several times in the past to have 100% certainty that it would be distracted. Otherwise, you wouldn't know for sure.

I'm talking about certainty in this very specific way.
Posted by dairygirl4u2c 2 years ago
well i guess i didn't really respond to it. but i dont see how in a real world scenario, the person at the lever would be responsible for it to begin with. there's all kinds of scenarios where this wouldnt be true.
never heard this before, i'd speculate because it's pretty weak.
Posted by wrichcirw 2 years ago
"What I'm saying is that you can't have have a controlled, certain environment without this effect on means."

Wait, I don't understand, lol. First, you paint a very plausible scenario where "the MEANS in this case are morally identical," and then you say that such a scenario is implausible?
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by wrichcirw 2 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: to describe this debate...I still fully disagree with CON's position, although I recognize that her case was more formidable than PRO's. Introducing uncertainty is IMHO not a valid approach to discrediting the "TP" (trolley problem). Neither is assuming that the one at the lever is morally responsible due to both choices being perceived as actions...this assumes that that person also was responsible for tying the people to the tracks, which is wholly unwarranted and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the TP. PRO somewhat addresses this, but her arguments were not specific and not really compelling, given that this is a debate where one expects arguments to be addressed with substantiation and detail. Still, had I scored this, I would have given args to PRO and S&G to CON.