Here’s a variation on the classic trolley problem that I haven’t seen before:
Five innocent people are trapped in the path of an oncoming trolley. You could turn the trolley onto a sidetrack, away from the five. If you do so, the five will be saved, but, foreseeably, the trolley will hit and kill one innocent person who’s trapped on the sidetrack.
As it happens, one of the five people threatened by the trolley (call her Susan) is standing on a lazy susan. You have an alternative means of saving Susan: you could rotate the lazy susan on which she’s standing, thereby moving her out of the trolley’s path.
I am assuming that:
- It is neither difficult nor costly for you to turn the trolley or rotate the lazy susan.
- It is impermissible for you to do neither of those things: saving Susan, at least, is an easy rescue for you to perform. It would cost you nothing, and would not require your harming anyone.
- Other things equal, it is permissible to kill one person as a foreseen side effect of saving five, but it is not permissible to kill one person as a side effect of saving any fewer than five. (That is, other things equal, it would not be permissible to kill one person as a side effect of saving four.)
- It is impermissible for you firstto rotate the lazy susan, thento turn the trolley. This is because, once you’ve rotated the lazy susan, only four people remain under threat. Turning the trolley at that point would kill one innocent person as a side effect of saving four.
My question is:
Given that you have the power to save Susan without harming anyone or incurring costs yourself, is it morally permissible for you to turn the trolley instead of rotating the lazy susan? That is, does your having the powerto save Susan without harming anyoneexcludesaving all five and killing one as a side effect as a morally permissible option?
I’m not certain what I think about this case, but I’d love to know what others think.
Kerah Gordon-Solmon (Queen’s University)
This case is the product of an e-mail conversation between Jonathan Parry and me; it was constructed jointly by both of us.