What Would YOU do?


Ever heard of the Trolley Problem? I’m not sure who first posed the dilemma but I know it has spawned a ton of cool morality tests that really twist your mind and make you sweat and hope that if you are ever, ever in one of the moral dilemma’s posed, someone will just bonk you on the head instead of making you come up with an answer.

Fun stuff.

So, anyway the Trolley Dilemma goes something like this: Say you are standing near the tracks and you see a trolley coming at you out of control and you know (you know because “they” tell you) that unless you pull the lever in front of you (oh yeah, there’s a lever in front of you) that all the people  (say ten) on the trolley are going to die in a horrible firey crash. 

Easy one, right? You pull the lever.

Now “they” tell you that there’s another person standing in the place that the trolley goes when you pull the lever, who is unaware that they are standing in THE place. Let’s picture a grandmotherly figure standing there with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a big, happy smile.  Now, when you pull the lever to save the ten people, the trolley will jump the track and kill the grandmotherly figure. (The good part is she won’t know what hit her. Okay, I made that part up, she may.)

Now do you pull the lever? Or do you let ten people die because you’re squeamish about squishing grandma?

Part Three: Say, in order to save the ten people and stop the train, you have to actually push the grandmother figure onto the track knowing she will be killed?

Is one life worth ten? Will you feel like a murderer even if you’ve saved ten lives by killing? Or will you feel like a hero with some residual guilt and remorse?

When you’ve thought about your response, read on:

Interestingly enough, most people are okay with pulling the lever and grandma dying indirectly from their action. However, pushing someone to their death, even if it means saving ten people–that’s ten families that will be crushed by losing their loved one–even so, this is not acceptable. Indirect death is okay, but death directly from action is not.

What they’ve found when an MRI machine scanned the brains of people while working out these moral dilemmas is that the first scenario: pulling the level and indirectly killing someone activates the part of the brain used for solving problems and reasoning.  But, the part of the brain that lit up while pondering pushing someone to their death was the amygdala, which is responsible for our emotions and how we perceive emotions  in others–empathy.

Take away or damage this part of the brain and you have someone without the ability to feel and without the ability to feel for another person. You have a sociopath. This doesn’t mean that all brain damaged people are sociopaths or that all sociopaths have brain damage, but it does show us that there can be a physical reason for someone without the ability to feel empathy or feel that pushing someone in front of a train is morally wrong, no matter what the reason.

In fact, this test was given to people with damage in this brain region and their answer was to push the person because “logically” sacrificing one life to save ten was the right thing to do. In their mind, pushing grandma is good not evil.

So, how about you? Let’s up the stakes. I know people who say they would never kill another human being. What if one of the people in the trolley was your child or your mother? Would you push the person to their death then? What if the person to be squished by the trolley was your child or mother? Would you let the other ten people die to save them?

What if a person broke into your home and pointed a gun at your child or mother? Would you shoot first?

If you answered no–that you wouldn’t push the person and you wouldn’t shoot first–do you feel that doing nothing, that standing by impassively and causing death–is more morally right than doing something and causing death?

Me? I think I would pull the lever, not push grandma…and shoot first.

5 thoughts on “What Would YOU do?

  1. Felicity

    I reckon I’d actively squish grandma if I had to (assuming I couldn’t sacrifice myself instead) – not because I’m sociopathic, but because I see it as sacrificing myself at the same time – because (unlike the people on the trolley) I have to live with it the rest of my life.

    Because it involves suffering for me, it becomes morally “okay” in my mind.

    But if it was someone I knew, no way. The folks on the trolley are done for.

  2. soesposito Post author

    “Because it involves suffering for me, it becomes morally okay in my mind”

    Ouch!!!! That’s an interesting response, Felicity. I wonder why we associate suffering and self-sacrifice with being a good person?

  3. Anticrombie

    Self-sacrifice should never feel good or righteous. Self-sacrifice should feel just that; that you are sacrificing a piece of yourself for the greater good. There are always things to second-guess about. Things at various points in time that will cause great waves of remorse or guilt for having chosen a path that had multiple outcomes. If anyone was entirely self-sacrificing, then issues of impactful emotions get thrown under the train (along with the grandma… cookies and all).

    So, I’m guessing a pious individual would have much in common with the brain-damaged individual in that scenario.

    For me, I am neither pious, nor self-sacrificing. So I’d probably end up throwing ‘they’ in front of the train just for setting up the scenario. Truth is, no one really knows what they would do unless put into that scenario. The thought process of reviewing the problem would be much different that the reaction-process the brain would go through if they were in that situation.

    The Japanese train themselves through rigorous repetitive motions to react in certain ways by ‘instinct’. This embedded reaction process could be compared to the conditioning of a sociopath in an unhealthy mental environment.

    I bet we could condition someone to the reaction we wanted, just through a series of authoritative laws. Kill the old lady? That’s jailtime. Do nothing? No harm, no foul in the eyes of the law. ( oh yeah… that is the law as it stands now. So much for that theory)

    My favorite social scenario was from an old Twilight Zone: a stranger (I’m guessing one of ‘they’) knocks on a couple’s door and gives them a box with a button on it. “If you press the button, you will receive a hundred thousand dollars, (did I mention it was an OLD episode?) but someone You don’t know will die.” Needless to say, they finally press the button and the man shows up with the money. During their joyous elation, the husband flippantly asks, ‘so, what happens to the box with the button?’
    ‘Oh don’t worry about that,’ he says, ‘Rest asured it will go to someone YOU DON’T KNOW.’

  4. soesposito Post author

    You gotta love Twilight Zone! And yeah, that’s a good way to put it, being “conditioned” by our environment. Same thing as brainwashing? Perhaps we are all brainwashed.
    I have a really hard time with this whole self-sacrifice thing. I mean, if you’re going to sacrifce your life for someone…how is that a fair trade? Is your life worth less than theirs? I can see if it’s your child…then sure, I would throw myself in front of the train, just because I couldn’t live without them. But, it does me more good to be alive and raise my offspring–I’ll call that necessary evolutionary self-ishness. Much more productive than self-lessness.

  5. Felicity

    On the idea of causing yourself to suffer being somehow morally good —

    Yeah, definitely wrong. My rationality is way off, and has been for a while – but unfortunately, I don’t think I’m alone in this fallacy.



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