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The Trolley Problem

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 7/1/2014 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 7 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 4,652 times Debate No: 58270
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (1)
Votes (1)




The Trolley Problem (it probably has different names, but I'm sticking to this one), is the ethical scenario that challenges whether or not the killing of one is less evil than the killing of many.

The scenario goes like this:

There is a trolley (or train, tram, etc.) that is on a collision course with ten people. The people cannot move, and they will die, unless you, seeing a lever that will turn the vehicle away from the ten people, but will strike only one person standing on the opposite track, killing him. By doing nothing, you allow ten people to die, but by doing something, you intentionally and knowingly kill one person.

I, as Pro, will argue that it is right to sacrifice the one person to save the ten people.

Con will argue that it is wrong to murder the one to save the ten people.


While I see your point, I definitely believe that your choice is wrong. In allowing the train to continue forward, you would not be guilty for the deaths of those people. Sure, you failed to save them, but you also didn't purposefully kill them. In a Harvard study (1), 66% percent of people said that choosing to kill one person in favor of saving multiple others was wrong. The reasoning frequently given by the test subjects was that you were using the man on the other track to as means to achieve a more desirable outcome. And while some may agree with Niccolo Machiavelli, who famously said that "and in the actions of all men, one judges by the result" (2), I believe that killing someone to save another is immoral.

Debate Round No. 1


In this scenario, you know that through your actions, the ten people will be saved. You also know that they will die if you do not take any action. A doctor, who has the means to save someone, but refuses, would still be killing the person through omission of help. This applies to the Trolley Problem, since you know the result, therefore, one is obligated to save as many individual lives there are. There is no difference, in terms of intention, between killing the one person, since you know that he will die if you perform Action A, and killing the ten people, since you know they will die as well. The logical outcome must be to save ten people as opposed to one. Ten people outweigh one person, and since this is a thought experiment, each person is entirely the same (meaning, one isn't a criminal, or all ten of them are pregnant women, or etc.).

Con is stating that the deaths of the ten wouldn't be the fault of the decider, but it am arguing that, since the decider knows the ten people will die, and has the means to prevent that, with the causality being one instead of ten, then it would be the decider's fault.


The discrepancy, if I'm not misunderstanding my opponent`s last statement, would be that he considers doing nothing an action, while I do not. Letting the train go on its way is an option, not an action. Meanwhile, consciously turning a train into a collision course with another person is an option and an action. Your knowledge has no effect on the outcome of whether your choice is an option or an action. Also, The instance in which a doctor refuses a patient care is incomparable, because
A) A doctor has a moral obligation to save the person, whereas a normal trolley passenger does not, and
B) The passenger isn't refusing to save the people when he has the option, he is simply not doing anything to stop their deaths

None (This is a philosophical debate, not a factual one)
Debate Round No. 2


To counter my oppnenet's assumption of what I meant, I did not mean that letting the ten people die was an action. That is, "an omission of help". Although it is a lack of action, I would argue that committing, and ignoring an action that would lead to any kind of result, bad or good, would still have to be judged morally, or ethically.

To try to illustrate my point, I hope my opponent will forgive me for using another scenario.

A captain of a nuclear submarine sends ten mechanics to fix a broken engine. The engine room houses a nuclear generator that is about to leak, and he sends the mechanics in to attempt to stop it. Beforehand, he could have jettisoned the engine room, but he wanted to see if he could fix it (call it human error). During the repairs, the engine goes critical, and the captain has a choice: to seal the engine room, saving the entire crew of a hundred men, by sacrificing the ten mechanics, or to do nothing, letting the mechanics try to escape the engine room, but therefore allowing the leak to destroy the entire ship, killing everyone. The captain, must choose the first one, since the deaths of everyone outweigh the deaths of the mechanics.

To relate back to the original scenario, the captain is essentially the decider of the fate of where the trolley will go.
The engine is essentially the trolley.
The mechanics are the one person.
The crew are the ten people.
Sealing the engine room is basically similar of alternating the track so the ten people live,
Letting the mechanics escape is similar to letting the trolley hit.

It is my understanding that the person deciding the fate of the people in The Trolley Problem, has a moral obligation to the ten people, since inaction leads to their death, and I believe inaction must be judged as importantly as action; a bystander to a, let's say an act of bullying, must be judged as well as the bully, because the bystander could have taken means to stop it, but for whatever reason, refused to.

Thank you for the debate.
I appreciate you taking the time to write your arguments.


First, as a note to my opponent, I would like to thank them for their proper conduct and good attitude. It is something rarely displayed on this website.
Secondly, I apologize if what I assumed you meant was wrong.

Now onto the debate. I see what you mean in your likening of this to a bullying incident. However, I must point out this: in the trolley problem, taking action would result in the death of a human being. Taking action in the bullying situation would only help people. I am all for helping others, so long as it is not detrimental to someone else. Also, I would like to bring into the debate a common issue in our society today: suicide in subway stations (bear with me here). You see, many people in urban settings who wish to commit suicide throw themselves into the way of oncoming trains. Now the conductors of these trains have an option. They can slam the breaks, possibly injuring or killing those aboard the train, or they can let the train hit the person. No operator has, to my knowledge, risked their passengers to save the person on the tracks. I would say this can be likened to my non-willingness to harm someone to help someone else.

I would just like to once more thank my opponent for their time. It is rare to find such a mentally challenging debate, and I enjoyed this one thoroughly.
Debate Round No. 3
1 comment has been posted on this debate.
Posted by TWG-Rorschach 7 years ago
Gdi was a few minutes too late for accepting challenge. Give'em hell Con
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by Blade-of-Truth 7 years ago
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Total points awarded:05 
Reasons for voting decision: Conduct/S&G - Tie. Arguments - Con. Pro presented a case where inaction was equivalent to action. From this position, it seemed easy to justify inaction as an immoral act. Unfortunately for Pro, Con presented rebuttals that countered both examples presented by Pro. Con overcame these examples by showing that the moral duties differ between doctors and regular humans. I don't necessarily agree but Pro failed to flesh this issue out any further. Additionally, Con showed how the second example also doesn't hold because of the difference between death and bullying and thus showed how the example isn't necessarily applicable here. Due to these rebuttals presented by Con, I believe Pro failed in showing how his position on the Trolley Position is the correct position. Sources - Con. Pro failed to utilize any sources for further validating his contentions. All in all, this was a well-fought debate. I would truly enjoy seeing you two do this again in a 5 rounder. Cheers!

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