Tag Archives: Utilitarianism

Syria and the Trolley Problem

Courtesy of Neuroethics Canada.

Courtesy of Neuroethics Canada.


Imagine that you are standing at a junction in train tracks with your hand on the lever. You can see a train barreling toward you from the left; you can also hear the engineer’s frantic whistle blows. You look to your right to see what or whom the engineer is trying to warn and notice a group of people – say, five or six – tied to the tracks directly in the train’s path. You start to pull the lever in order to change the train’s trajectory to the other track, but then suddenly notice that the other track has one person tied to it in the same fashion. Therefore, you have two options: either do nothing and allow a large group of people to die, or act and directly cause the death of a smaller group. What do you do?

This dilemma is known as the Trolley Problem and is well-known in the philosophy field. First proposed by Philippa Foot in 1967, it is a thought experiment that allows us to examine hypothetical situations by applying reason and ethics. Like Lartéguy’s Ticking Time Bomb, Nozick’s Experience Machine, and Rawls’ Original Position, Foot’s question has had a lasting influence on how we think about ethics. If her proposal sounds familiar, it is because it is in essence the same dilemma the US under President Obama faces regarding the Syrian civil war: whether to act and potentially cause additional deaths or to remain passive and simply allow the current deaths to continue. Some critics have pointed out the futility of engaging in even more killing in order to stop killing that is already happening and others have responded that it would be worse to allow Assad’s slaughter to go on unchecked (For now, let us leave out the additional ethical variable of chemical weapons since it has not been proven conclusively that Assad’s regime has actually used them), in effect validating his actions. It is rare that political theorists are able to so directly apply abstract thought experiments to real-world issues, so this opportunity should not be squandered.

The side of the argument that favors intervention could be said to adhere to consequentialism, which is the notion that the end result of an action is more important than the morality of the action itself. Continue reading

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