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The Trolley Problem: An Ethical Dilemma

The trolley problem is a philosophical thought experiment that raises the question of whether it’s ethical to sacrifice one person’s life to save many others. It’s a standard example in moral philosophy that is debated in academia, often used in ethics classes, and has become a well-known cultural reference in modern society.

What is the Trolley Problem?

The trolley problem is a hypothetical scenario where a person is standing near a set of tram tracks, watching a trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five unsuspecting workers. The person has the power to divert the trolley onto a different set of tracks, where only one worker is standing. The question raised is whether the person should take action to divert the trolley or allow it to continue on its course and kill the five workers.

Ethical Dilemmas and Solutions

The trolley problem raises many ethical dilemmas and highlights different ethical theories. Here are some of the ethical dilemmas and solutions proposed:

  • Utilitarianism: The utilitarian solution suggests that the person should choose to kill the one worker to save the five others, as this action would result in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people.
  • Deontology: The deontological solution suggests that the person has a moral duty to not kill anyone intentionally, and thus they should not divert the trolley and allow it to continue its original path, even if it means that five people will die.
  • Virtue Ethics: The virtue ethical solution suggests that the person should act in a way that embodies virtues such as compassion, integrity, and justice, and the action they choose should align with these virtues.
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Perplexing Questions

The trolley problem becomes more complex when new situations are introduced. Here are some of them:

  • What if the worker on the other track was the person’s spouse, child, or sibling?
  • What if the person had a personal connection to one of the workers on the original track?
  • What if the one worker on the other track was a doctor who could cure cancer, while the five workers were convicted criminals?

These questions introduce new ethical dilemmas, adding levels of complexity to the problem and further challenging the proposed ethical solutions.

Key Takeaways

  • The trolley problem is a thought experiment that raises a common ethical dilemma of whether sacrificing one life is justified to save many others.
  • The dilemma involves different ethical theories such as utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics.
  • The problem becomes more complex and challenging when new situations are introduced that introduce personal connections and different ethical dilemmas.


The trolley problem may seem like a simple ethical dilemma, but it raises questions that have been debated in philosophy for centuries. The problem is an invitation to challenge and explore different ethical theories and to question one’s moral intuitions. Ultimately, the trolley problem doesn’t have a single solution, and that’s the beauty of it.


What is the origin of the trolley problem?

The trolley problem was first introduced by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, and further elaborated by Judith Jarvis Thomson in her paper “The Trolley Problem” in 1985.

Is the trolley problem only about trains?

No, the trolley problem is usually presented in terms of a train or trolley, but it can be applied to any scenario where an ethical decision has to be made that involves sacrificing one life for many.

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Is there a right or wrong solution to the trolley problem?

No, the trolley problem doesn’t have a single right solution, and that’s the point. The problem raises questions about different ethical theories and personal moral intuitions.

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