Posted in Philosophy

Trolley Problem

Imagine the following situation. There are five people working on a railroad. Unfortunately, a train is travelling down the track at the same time. Neither the conductor nor the workers are aware that a crash is coming. You are the only person that knows. Next to you is a switch that will change the tracks so that the train diverts and misses the five people, but the second track also has one worker working on it. Here is the dilemma: do you pull the switch to save the five workers at the cost of the one worker?

This is the famous trolley problem, a thoroughly discussed ethical dilemma that explores the ethics of utilitarianism. Is it morally right to sacrifice the life of one person to save the lives of five people? Mathematically this makes sense, as you are essentially saving four people through your action.

But now consider a similar yet different situation. Instead of a switch, this time you are standing next to a very large man on a bridge overhanging the tracks. The only way to save the five people on the track is to push the large man on to the tracks, slowing the train down and giving the five workers enough time to escape harm.

Mathematically, the end result is the same: one person is sacrificed so that five people live. But when presented the two scenarios, the majority of people will say they would not push the large man, even though they were willing to pull the switch in the first situation.

This is a complex ethical problem as the rational, logical choice may not necessarily be the “morally right” choice. It directly conflicts with our natural and cultural belief that we should not kill members of our own species. The slippery slope argument also applies here, as if you can argue that killing one man to save five people is correct, then what’s to stop us from sacrificing one person to harvest their organs to save the lives of many people awaiting organ transplants?

Although the original problem was developed to explore the morality of utilitarianism, we are now living in a time where the trolley problem has become an actual logistical issue. The issue lies with self-driving cars. Self-driving cars should theoretically dramatically reduce road traffic accidents as it removes human error such as drink driving and inattention as the cause of crashes. However, if a situation was to arise where the car senses that it is about to collide into a pedestrian (or five), what does it do? Does it swerve to avoid the pedestrian and put the passengers’ lives at risk? How does a computer decide what the morally right choice is?

A computer is designed to make calculated, rational decisions. Mathematically, it may deem that swerving and crashing into a tree – endangering the life of its sole passenger – is the logical choice to prevent hitting five people on the road. But then who would buy a car that willingly sacrifices its passengers’ lives for the greater good?

Technology is advancing at a staggering rate and we are facing ethical dilemmas that we have never had to consider before. It is our job to discuss and explore these issues ahead of time so that we can prevent irresponsible use of technology in the future.

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